Black pastors want new early voting site in St. Pete; Pinellas says no, and says existing plan is good for 'all voters'

Published Sept. 23, 2016

The pastors of two predominantly black churches in St. Petersburg called for an additional early voting site in South St. Pete Friday, and were joined by Mayor Rick Kriseman in what one pastor called an issue of "civil rights."

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark heard their concerns but she held firm on her existing plan for five early voting sites, calling it "solid" and in the best interests of all county voters.

The Rev. Louis Murphy and the Rev. Manuel Sykes held a news conference at the Lake Vista Recreation Center, which they suggested would be an ideal early voting site.

"Why not have a voting site right in our community which would make it easier for people to vote?" Murphy said. "Too long, we have been struggling for this right to vote." He said the lack of an early voting site in the heart of the black community was part of an effort to "suppress" voter turnout.

"We are tired of seeing our community members waiting in long lines to vote on election day and we believe that an early voting location right here in our community would be an important victory for voting rights and for civil rights," Sykes said in a statement. An early voting site within close distance of voters would increase turnout, he said.

Pinellas is by far the vote-by-mail capital of Florida. In the Aug. 30 primary, 76 percent of all ballots cast in the county were by mail, 22 percent voted on election day, and 2 percent -- two -- voted at early voting sites. Clark will offer 14 days of early voting for the presidential election at five sites, including on Sunday, Nov. 6, which is known as "souls to the polls." The early voting site closest to most African-American voters in Pinellas is the downtown St. Petersburg elections office at 501 First Avenue N.

"We have no plans to add early voting sites," Clark said in an interview Friday. "We're confident that the election plan that we have in place provides easy ballot access for all Pinellas County voters."

Clark said voter turnout in county commission District 7, which includes south and west St. Petersburg, increased in the last two presidential elections and was higher than the countywide turnout. She said that during early voting and on election day, the city puts bags over parking meters near her downtown St. Petersburg office so voters do not have to pay to park.

Kriseman pointedly criticized Clark's refusal to add another early voting site. He said he personally made the request and was told, "'Sorry, we're not interested. That's not good enough.'"