Voters concerned over Manatee County polling location cutbacks

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MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Manatee County will notice changes at the polls this election day -- if their old polling location is even still there at all. More than 25 voting sites have been eliminated since the last election.

Now voter’s concerns have switched from whether their votes will count to worries about whether or not they’ll be able to get to the polls.

In 2013 there were 99 precincts. That number has now been cut to 70. Pat Benson, chair of the Manatee County Democratic Party, says the majority of the closures are in District 2, an area known for its racial diversity.

"50 percent of the precincts closed [were] in the minority area," Benson says.

But Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett says the move was part of an effort to increase voter turnout by expanding the number of early voting locations.

"We knew it was going to cost us about $100,000 to set up four early voting sites, and I had to come up with the $100,000 somewhere, so we started looking at what we considered non-performing precincts,” Bennett says.

Bennett says non-performing precincts include locations with very low voter turnout and those not compliant with the Americans with Disability Act.

"We started closing down some of those precincts; in order to stay in the same budget we had to equalize that," Mike Bennett.

But Benson says she’s skeptical about the equality of the closures.

"Some of the precincts were closed because they only had five people voting or less. I can see their point of view in that case,” Benson says. “But there are other precincts in other areas that could have been shifted and moved also."

We did some digging on the topic.

Precinct 48 was on the chopping block and it had 1000 voters assigned to it. But Precinct 303 is still up and running despite only serving 1,600 registered voters. On the other hand, there are now precincts, like 218, that will have around 4800 voters assigned to the polling location because it combined 8 of the sites that have now been closed.

And while many are concerned about the possibility of long lines at polling locations there is another option: vote by mail.

"I really hope more and more people will sign up or absentee,” Bennett says. “We expect this year in this election nearly 40 percent of the people will voter either early or vote by mail."

There are currently about 210,000 registered voters in the county. Those interested in voting by mail can contact the Supervisor of Elections office, which usually sends out a ballot within three days of a request.