TALLAHASSEE — The pastors of two predominantly black churches in St. Petersburg demanded an additional site for early voting Friday in what they called an issue of civil rights, but the county said its existing plan is fair to all voters.
Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who aggressively urges voters to vote by mail, said she will not add any additional sites and defended her voting setup as "solid" and fair to all voters in the county.
The Rev. Louis Murphy and the Rev. Manuel Sykes, joined by Mayor Rick Kriseman, summoned reporters to the Lake Vista Recreation Center at 1401 62nd Ave. S., 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 asked. "For too long, we have been struggling for this right to vote, and we know that many people don't have the adequate transportation. Lines are long, people begin to get frustrated, and they don't 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.
Murphy is senior pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Sykes announced his retirement two weeks ago as pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church.
"It's only fair to have a location in the south side of St. Petersburg where the residents would be encouraged to vote early and to guarantee that more would participate in this basic civil right," Sykes said.
Floridians have three ways to vote. They can cast ballots by mail, vote at an early voting site or vote in their local precinct on Election Day, Nov. 8.
The pastors are fighting a trend.
Pinellas is by far the vote-by-mail capital of Florida, and Clark utilizes a network of drop-off sites for voters to return ballots. 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 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, a day known as "souls to the polls" in which Democrats organize transportation to get black voters to vote early after church.
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 Friday. "We're confident that the election plan that we have in place provides easy ballot access for all Pinellas County voters."
The November ballot is a two-sided ballot with 11 separate questions, Clark said, so it's good for voters to be able to take all the time they need at home to fill it out.
"There's a reason why we're the largest mail ballot county in the state," Clark said. "Our voters prefer a mail ballot."
In the presidential election in 2012, records show, 54 percent of all Pinellas voters cast ballots by mail, while less than 9 percent voted at early voting sites.
Pinellas also consistently has voter turnouts higher than the statewide average.
Clark said black voter turnout in County Commission District 7, which includes south and west St. Petersburg, increased in the past 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 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.
"The response we got was, 'Sorry, we're not interested.' That's not good enough," Kriseman said.