Elections offices open over weekend to submit mail-in ballots ahead of early voting

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ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections offices opened over the weekend for voters to submit mail-in ballots ahead of the first day of early voting, a move community leaders saw as a step in the right direction after their demands for an additional early voting site in the African-American community were turned down.

Activists and politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, called reporters on Sunday to the downtown St. Petersburg office at 501 First Ave. N to thank the supervisor of elections for what the Rev. Manuel Sykes called a "gesture of inclusivity."

"It doesn't bring the polls to us," said Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church. "But it at least gives us more time to get to the polls."

Their requests were taken into consideration, said Supervisor of Elections spokesman Jason Latimer, but the decision was ultimately made last week to better serve voters around the county as more people are opting for mail-in ballots. The office had mailed out 293,000 ballots so far and gotten about 109,000 back, a higher portion at this point than in past elections.

"Our stance has always been that we have this election plan that's going to provide easy access to all voters," he said.

Sykes was part of a group working to bring early voting to the Lake Vista Recreation Center at 1401 62nd Ave. S. He said Sunday that voters in south St. Petersburg face several challenges, such as a lack of transportation and distrust in the mail-in system, make an early voting location in the heart of the black community essential.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark denied the request, saying last month the county's voting setup is fair.

Pinellas has five early voting sites with the closest one to south St. Petersburg the downtown location. That number is far fewer than other large counties, which Crist hammered in his speech, saying that some counties in south Florida "may have more than 40" early voting locations. In reality, Miami-Dade County has 30, Broward has 21 and Palm Beach has 15.

"I regret there aren't more of these offices open in Pinellas County," said Crist, who is running on the Democratic ticket for U.S. House District 13 against Republican incumbent David Jolly. "But be that as it may, I am grateful. I am grateful for the fact that she has opened this office, and I hope that it will spawn more as we go forward."

Churches planned to bus their members after Sunday services to the downtown elections office, where voters could either turn in ballots they completed at home or take an over-the-counter ballot and fill it out on the spot.

One bus with six to seven people from Bethel Community Baptist Church showed up at the time of the news conference. A handful of others drove themselves. Latimer said the total number of people who voted over the weekend wouldn't be available until Monday morning.

Kevin Gordon, 52, drove from Bethel with his son, an 18-year-old first-time voter, to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Gordon said they were going to early vote tomorrow, but when they heard during the service the office would be open Sunday, they decided to vote with over-the-counter mail-in ballots. Gordon said he prefers to vote in person rather than by mail "to feel like you're really part of the process," he said.

At one point in the afternoon, R&B singer Monica Brown made an appearance fresh off a Saturday night performance at the Beats By The Bay music festival in Vinoy Park. She said she was planning to stay for the day to encourage people in the community to cast their ballots.

"It's a very quick process," she said. "But it will change our lives forever."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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