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Elections chief criticized over redesigned voters' cards

TAMPA — Newly registered voters in Hillsborough County are getting voter information cards with a different look from years past.

A redesign launched last year no longer includes polling place addresses on the voter information cards that many people carry in their wallets.

Instead, that detail is included on an accompanying letter outside the detachable card. The new cards also feature Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's name and the voter's party affiliation more prominently than the old ones.

But some voters complain cards without a listed polling place are likely to create confusion or suppress voter turnout.

At a community forum Tuesday night, Johnson heard some pointed questions about the card's redesign. He relented, suggesting the matter could be studied again and perhaps changed.

Earlier Tuesday, Kathy Harris, Johnson's general counsel, explained the addresses were removed from the cards to prevent confusion when polling locations change.

"We have not had any complaints about the change," she said. "Most voters told us they use the sample ballot which we mail out just prior to every election as their means of determining the most up-to-date information about the election, including polling site location."

But at Tuesday night's forum at the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, Johnson got an earful, including comments from state Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, a Democrat whose District 18 includes voters from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

Joyner said some of her constituents threw out the letter that had the polling place printed on it, aren't sure where to vote and aren't capable of checking Johnson's Web site to correlate the precinct number on their voting card with a changed polling place address.

"What does the little old lady do who doesn't own a computer?" Joyner asked Johnson.

Johnson told the crowd of mostly African-Americans he would refer the issue to his African-American advisory board, and if the board recommends adding addresses back to voting cards, he was open to it.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Busansky, the Democrat challenging Johnson, a Republican, in his re-election bid, said she wants the state to look at the issue.

Busansky said it seems Johnson made the change so he could put his name on the card in large letters.

"New voters who punch out the card to put in their wallet will no longer know where to go," Busansky said. "This will undoubtedly disproportionately affect new registrants and seems to me to be a potentially discriminatory approach."

Busansky sent an e-mail Tuesday asking Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning to investigate the redesign.

She also wants Browning to look into Johnson's recent mailing of voter registration applications to people already registered to vote, saying the mailing has made people think there is a problem with their registration.

"We need more oversight from the State Division of Elections in order to assure a fair election," Busansky said.

Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Browning, said Tuesday night that Browning's office has no authority to look into matters that are discretionary for each elections supervisor.

Davis said nothing in state law requires a voter information card to include a polling location, though it must include such information as the voter's name, precinct number and party affiliation.

"There's no violation of statute," she said.

The cards are not necessary to participate in elections, and some counties provide the required information in a format much larger than a wallet-sized card, Davis said.

"Supervisors have chosen to do that so there is not confusion at the polling place with people thinking they need to bring the card," she said.

In the Tampa city elections in March 2007, Johnson's office moved the polling place for two precincts without sending written notification to voters. Precincts 215 and 217, with 2,535 registered voters, were moved from the Korean Methodist Church to another church without notice, and voters were left to find directions on a small sign and navigate to a new polling place.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Elections chief criticized over redesigned voters' cards 10/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:32pm]
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