tampabay.com

Voting shouldn't be game of keep-away

By SUE CARLTON
Published March 7, 2007


I tried to go vote Tuesday in Tampa, but no one was there.

In the early morning chill, I pulled into the oak-shaded parking lot of the Korean United Methodist Church, the same place I've voted since moving to my neighborhood near downtown nine years ago.

As always, candidate signs crowded the roadway. But where were the people? Not a sign waver nor a poll worker in sight.

I peered into dark church windows and knocked on the door. Turnout for city elections is notoriously low, but this was ridiculous.

My neighbors are sought after because they vote. We managed a 38 percent turnout in the last mayoral election, compared to 33 percent citywide. And this is one of the city's larger precincts, with 2,375 registered voters.

Finally, a woman pulling up a campaign sign to take it elsewhere told us this polling place had moved. She pointed to a map - not one you would call user friendly - posted on a placard in the parking lot.

The location of the new spot, Smyrna Baptist Church, meant some folks who planned to vote on their way to work had to double back - a minor hassle for some, more than that for others.

Two people I talked to at the first church said they just didn't have time. Hard enough to get people out there in the first place.

"There's a lot of older people who live in the neighborhood who are just going to throw up their hands and not vote, and that's very frustrating," said Machelle Muir, a CPA and fellow double backer. "You know what? We should have received something in the mail."

None of the voters I talked to in those first hours knew about the change. Not former mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez, who lives in the precinct. Not longtime former City Council member Charlie Miranda, on the ballot Tuesday to represent this area and a guy who pays attention to this stuff.

So what gives?

Maybe you managed to spot the ad on the bottom of a page inside the Metro section of the Tampa Tribune. It said four polling locations in the city, encompassing eight precincts, were moving. The others were doing so temporarily because of construction or other events. Ours was a permanent change.

Elections officials said the church didn't want to be a voting place anymore after a poll worker got hurt there last year. So why no mailers to let us know, when Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's face has become so familiar on ads and fliers?

Elections officials said by the time they found a new site, it was too late to send out letters, which must be posted 14 days before the election. Early voting started Feb. 19. The Department of Justice hadn't even approved the new site as of election day.

By midmorning, after reporters called, Johnson had posted a person at the old church to direct wayward voters. (An enterprising guy in a Tom Scott-for-City-Council shirt was also there, handing out printed directions.) Johnson later reported a "steady stream" of traffic to the new church.

"The good is that people are voting," he said. "The bad is that people had to go to work or whatnot (without voting). We could have done better and we will do better."

Johnson's office did get us one piece of correspondence: a how-are-we-doing reply card for everyone who voted, postage paid. Bet he'll be hearing from my neighbors.