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Divided Hernando commission supports plan to reduce number of polling places

BROOKSVILLE — A divided Hernando County Commission on Tuesday approved a plan to shrink the number of precincts and polling places, amid concerns that the changes could suppress the votes of some Brooksville residents.

Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson proposed reducing the number of polling places countywide from 39 to 33 and the number of precincts from 39 to 37. The two precincts that will be eliminated are Precinct 11 in south Brooksville, a precinct that includes a large number of African-American voters, and Precinct 26, which includes the Clover Leaf Farms mobile home park on the north side of Brooksville.

Everyone in Brooksville would be moved to the polling place at the Jerome Brown Community Center in Tom Varn Park.

Polling places at the Timber Pines Lodge, the Weeki Wachee Area Club, the East Hernando Branch Library and the Hernando County Shrine Club would be collapsed into other voting locations.

Early voting would be expanded to four locations: the East Hernando Branch Library, the South Brooksville Community Center, the Spring Hill Branch Library and the Forest Oaks Supervisor of Elections Office.

The changes would save approximately $8,000 per election, and in the future would save more money because less voting equipment will have to be replaced, Anderson said.

The newly elected Republican supervisor explained that she examined voting trends and voter numbers before proposing the changes. She reminded commissioners that she promised during her campaign to make the office more efficient and that was what she was doing.

But she faced opposition from some residents and from county Commissioner Diane Rowden, who urged that the changes be tabled for several months so that the voters affected could have a voice before any decisions were made.

Paul Douglas, president of the local branch of the NAACP, argued that making the changes is "denying or suppressing the vote.'' Saving a few dollars "is not enough to deny the right to vote,'' he said.

South Brooksville resident Richard Howell said that closing Precinct 11 is eliminating a historic voting site where residents could walk to cast their vote.

"There is no reason to even think about closing Precinct 11,'' Howell said.

Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, said the DEC had voted to notify the U.S. Department of Justice regarding Anderson's actions.

While he acknowledged that Anderson had a tough job, Zeledon said that saving money should not be the paramount concern when it comes to voting. He noted that Anderson had worked for years for local Republican representatives in Congress, but now holds an office where she should act in a nonpartisan way and look out for all voters, regardless of their political persuasion.

The people of south Brooksville need more help, not less, in getting out the vote, said retired businessman and Democratic County Commission candidate Jimmy Lodato. Eliminating the voting precinct in that community, he said, "would be an abomination.''

"I have some deep concerns about this plan,'' Rowden said.

While she acknowledged that early voting and voting by mail have been growing, some people want to vote on Election Day, she said, adding that some people have come forward and offered to raise money to keep precincts open.

In Clover Leaf, retired residents travel in their golf carts, and "it's a real ritual to them to have their precinct,'' Rowden said.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson said it was Anderson's job to run elections and that he didn't believe the commission should interfere with her responsibilities.

"This is her job,'' Nicholson said. "Our job is to control her budget.''

Anderson defended her position, saying she believed she had done due diligence to inform the affected communities and increase efficiency.

"This is not about suppressing the vote,'' she said.

Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the changes, with Rowden and Commissioner Jim Adkins voting no.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Divided Hernando commission supports plan to reduce number of polling places 09/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 6:21pm]
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