Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark speaking to students at USF St. Pete last week.
BY DEVON BONNELL, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG — The mayor, two pastors of prominent black churches and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board have all called for an additional early voting site for the convenience of south St. Petersburg residents.
But Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has declined the request. An additional site, which would cost an estimated $90,000 to establish and staff, is neither cost effective nor needed, she said Sept. 29.
Voter turnout in the area that includes many of the city’s black residents is higher than the countywide average, she said, and voting by mail – the option she has championed for years – “provides equal, easy access to every voter.”
“In my opinion, there is not a need,” she told journalism students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Under Florida law, the state’s supervisors of elections can offer early voting for up to 14 days before Election Day on Nov. 8. Pinellas offers the full 14 days, from Oct. 24 to Nov. 6, at five sites – the three supervisors of elections offices around the county and community centers in Gulfport and Palm Harbor.
For most black St. Petersburg residents, the closest early voting sites are the supervisor’s office at 501 First Ave. N in downtown and the Gulfport Neighborhood Center at 1617 49th St. S.
But that’s not close enough for Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Pastors Louis Murphy Sr. and Manuel Sykes.
In a news conference last month, the ministers and mayor demanded that Clark establish a sixth early voting site to help ensure that more people can participate in what Sykes called a “basic civil right.” The lack of a site suppresses voter turnout, Murphy said.
They suggested the Lake Vista Recreation Center, 1401 62nd Ave. S, would be a good location for early voting.
The addition of a sixth site would be “a modest accommodation,” the Times editorial said. “When community leaders ask for more early voting sites, the chief elections official should be eager to oblige.”
In Florida, voters have three options. They can vote at their precinct polling place on Election Day, cast their ballots at an early voting site or vote by mail.
Clark has made Pinellas the No. 1 county in the state for voting by mail. In the Aug. 30 primary, 76 percent of the ballots were cast by mail, 22 percent were cast on Election Day and 2 percent came at early voting sites, according to the Times.
In her presentation at USFSP, Clark said that when the request for another early voting site came up, she and her staff looked at voter registration and turnout numbers “so we could make an evidence-based decision and not an emotional decision.”
They looked at the Pinellas County Commission district that includes most of south St. Petersburg, she said, and determined that 36 percent of the 26,000 voters there have standing requests for mail ballots. Half of the 26,000 are African American.
Voter turnout in that district has “increased every year and is higher than the countywide average,” Clark said.
The cost was another factor in her decision, Clark said, and “it always has to be. We’re spending somebody else’s money.”
Voters from any precinct in the county can use an early voting site. That means each site must have special printers that cost an estimated $60,000, Clark said. Training and staff for an additional early voting site would cost another $30,000.
“Just using the data, I can’t justify spending $90,000,” said Clark. “The data doesn’t support it.”
There was a time when her office had 11 early voting sites, she said, and in 2004 and 2006 some people who voted there had to stand in line for four to six hours. “Quite frankly, all we did was piss people off,” she said.
The Great Recession, which hit Florida in 2007, forced county government to make deep budget cuts for several years, Clark said.
The costs of early voting sites are “extraordinarily high” – an estimated several hundred dollars per vote, she said. So she reduced the number of sites to save county taxpayers half a million dollars.
“For me, it was an ethical decision as well as economic – the numbers did not justify the cost,” she said.
Voting by mail “is the one thing that provides equal, easy access to every voter,” Clark said. Early voting “does not increase voter turnout… In fact, there are many studies that suggest that early voting actually drives down voter turnout.”
Asked later to respond, Sykes took issue with Clark’s comments.
Sykes began with an open letter to Clark in The Weekly Challenger, asking for the desired early voting site, mentioning the concern of many in the community about long lines at voting sites on Election Day.
He also listed other issues in his letter such as transportation to voting sites as well as the fact that many voters in the area work and cannot afford to wait in line come Nov. 8.
Voting by mail is hard for some people, especially in a poor area, and not many people in the black community use that option, he said.
As an elected official, Clark has a duty to provide voters with everything they need to have their voices heard, Sykes said.
Taxpayers in the black community deserve the right to have an early voting site nearby, he said. Otherwise “you’re taking from some taxpayers to help other taxpayers.”
This is not a matter of money, but a matter of giving voice to a community where there is a history of being silenced, he said.
“We want to be heard,” Sykes said. “We want to be given the opportunity to vote in greater numbers.”