Manatee County voters are justified in their skepticism of Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett's new precinct plan, which reduces the number of precincts in the county from 99 to 69 and was approved by the county commission this week. From Florida's wretched history of voter suppression and Election Day mismanagement, to Bennett's own record, there's evidence galore that the state's political elite have something between indifference and contempt for the democratic process.
Let me start by saying that there are some elements of the SOE's plan that seem to make sense (like the choices for where to put the additional early voting sites). Also, as Election Day voting becomes a less common preference because of things like expanded early voting opportunities and a preference by some to avoid the whole Election Day fiasco and vote absentee, it is not unreasonable to expect that the logistics of executing an election will adapt to reflect those changes. However, that alone does not make a complete case for cutting almost a third of the precincts, or otherwise validate the particular way in which it was done.
There's also what I'll call the Bennett factor, which is a particular skepticism rooted in the former state Senator's highly partisan and highly-political nature. As soon as he entered the race for SOE, I opined that his past record on voting issues, as well as his deep political ties with people who will be running for office in the elections he supervises, would provide opponents of any policy or action plenty of ammunition to cry partisan favoritism. After all, this is the guy who's on record saying that we should make it harder, rather than easier to vote.
In this case, the district that was most impacted in terms of percentage of reductions was District 2, which includes most of the downtown areas in Bradenton and Palmetto. It is home to a disproportionate population of both minorities and the poor, and is also the only solidly Democratic district in Manatee County. Naturally, this throws up a few red flags.
As leaders in the African American community have noted, many blacks are rightfully wary of voting absentee or at polling sites other than their voting precinct on Election Day. Why? Because they have been consistently targeted as a group to have their vote suppressed, ever since finally obtaining the right to vote in the first place. Even in the Jim Crow south, Florida was a leading innovator in creating ways to suppress the black vote after the ratification of the 15th amendment. From “white primaries” and tissue ballots, to multiple ballot boxes and poll taxes, Florida led the way (click here to read an excellent piece by Darryl Paulson that goes into much greater depth on this subject).
More recently, the state implemented policies like deeply-flawed voter purge list software, in which the vendor itself told state election officials that their requests to cast a wider net would lead to significantly more erroneous scrubs. Reporting for The Guardian, investigative reporter Greg Palast did the only completely-thorough investigation of the 2000 presidential election I've seen and demonstrated how such shenanigans indeed swung the entire national election (the article appears in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy).
In its most recent “reforms,” the state reduced the number of days in its highly-successful early voting program from 14 to 8, but a key component of this schedule is that it reduces the number of Sundays on the early voting calendar from two to one. It is well-known by pols, that these Sundays are heavily utilized by elderly, poor or infirm African Americans who carpool from church to the polls. While in the state Senate, Bennett was a chief proponent of this legislation.
At Tuesday's meeting, most of the commissioners were somewhat dismissive of the concerns and even shared their pleasant experiences voting locally, seeming to hope it would assuage citizen anxiety. But until you have lived the life of someone elderly, deeply impoverished and/or seriously disabled, it seems a bit myopic to compare the logistics involved for each of you in terms of getting from place to place.
When you also consider the other issues in which Republican officials have seemed intent on stacking the deck on Election Day, like rewriting the precinct guidelines in such a way that places like the University of Florida student union – a once popular precinct site – is not eligible to be an early voting location, it again raises suspicion. As Palast pointed out in his piece, you might not be able to directly target a party, but if you can look at who reliably votes for that party and target them, it's nearly as effective. College students and African Americans both tend to vote Democratic by wide margins.
It should also be noted that it has long been a common and effective political ploy to take a reasonable-sounding premise, attach it to an otherwise unsound policy and just keep shouting that one plus one is equal to three until you drown out the questions. Social Security is in trouble because people are living much longer than they used to – not true, but it sounds plausible; the postal service is in trouble because people are using email instead of writing letters – ditto, sounds good, but no dice; drug testing welfare recipients will get deadbeats off the rolls and save us tax money – trifecta.
This smells like a similar ploy. Early voting may well come to change the way we cast our ballots, but elections are too important to ram through a reduction of nearly a third of our polling precincts with almost no public discussion and vast public opposition when the item did appear quickly and quietly before the board. In the wake of their poor performance in the 2012 elections, Republicans responded with a narrative that suggested they had a "demographic problem" that would only get worse with time, as their key demographic – older white males – became a smaller part of the overall population. Shading potential outcomes is one way to overcome that reality – it's just not a legal one.
Given Florida's embarrassing history of bungling elections and suppressing voting rights (with attempts at the latter often causing or exacerbating the former), it is very disconcerting to see this sort of potentially-disastrous policy pushed through with so little consideration. When a board on which six of seven commissioners are Republicans passes a Republican SOE's plan to reduce precincts disproportionately in the only district in the county that has more Democrats, it just doesn't pass the smell test. As always, ideas should win elections – not dirty tricks.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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