Voting by mail has been a resounding success in Pinellas County, where 76 percent of all ballots were cast by mail in the August primary. But that's no reason to be stingy about providing early-voting sites, which Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has limited to just five locations — none in south St. Petersburg — despite calls for more. Ballot access should accommodate all voters' needs and preferences, and when community leaders ask for more early-voting sites, the chief elections official should be eager to oblige.
Florida law directs counties to provide between eight and 14 days of early voting, with flexibility on days and hours. This is an area of state law in which more uniformity would be better. All Floridians should have the opportunity to cast a ballot at a time and place convenient to them in the two weeks leading up to an election. The county-by-county approach leads to wide variations in early-voting access.
For example, Hillsborough offers early voting across 16 locations for two weeks. Pasco offers only eight days, at just eight locations, in a county that covers nearly 900 square miles. In Pinellas, Clark's office is providing the full two weeks of early voting, but she has refused to open any additional locations. Clark points to Pinellas' highest-in-the-state mail ballot participation as evidence that more early sites aren't needed. That is faulty reasoning. Plenty of people prefer to vote in person. In poor communities, many residents don't get mail at home due to frequent moves. And not everyone has postage stamps lying around the house anymore.
If those speculative reasons aren't enough, how about this unambiguous one: Leaders in south St. Petersburg have asked for a site in their community. The closest early-voting site to the heart of St. Petersburg's African-American neighborhoods is downtown. Speaking recently outside the Lake Vista Recreation Center, the Rev. Louis Murphy posited, "Why not have a voting site, right in our community, which would make it easier for people to vote?"
Why not, indeed?
The nation is six weeks away from an important election in which Florida will play a decisive role. Ballot access across all demographics is a critical matter of civil rights. Clark is to be commended for offering the most hours of early voting allowed under state law. In that light, her refusal to further encourage participation by adding early-voting sites, particularly in an area where residents explicitly say one is needed, is frustrating. Clark could add to her county's already impressive voter turnout rate by making this modest accommodation.