With the November 8 election on the horizon, so, too, is early voting.
Offered at limited sites throughout the state, it starts about two weeks ahead of Election Day as a convenience to voters who can't make it to the polls Nov. 8.
But in St. Pete, local leaders think the county's five early voting sites aren't incredibly accessible to south St. Pete residents, given their closest option is downtown. On Friday morning, they called on Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark to open up a fourth early voting site at south St. Pete's Lake Vista Recreation Center.
“One of the things that's important to me and I believe this community is that we be given equal access and equal opportunity in voting to begin with, and many other opportunities that afforded every American,” said Rev. Manuel Sykes as he stood near the entrance of the center.
Sykes and others are concerned that the predominantly African-American area doesn't have the same access to early voting (and voting in general) as the rest of the county.
Downtown St. Pete may be a 10- or 15-minute drive from the south side, but Sykes argues that it's a hardship for many residents to find transportation there, and those that are able to drive have to contend with parking fees and, often, pricey parking tickets if they take a little too long.
Contrast that with the Lake Vista Recreation Center, which is considerably more accessible to south St. Pete residents.
"We feel that it's only fair to have a location in the south side of St. Petersburg, where the residents will be encouraged to vote early, and guarantee that more will participate in this basic civil right,” Sykes said.
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman said he plans to lobby the elections supervisor's office to install an early voting site there in time for the election. The SOE has until October 8 to do so if it chooses.
But chances are, that's not going to happen.
“We have no intention to add an additional voting site,” said Jason Latimer, a spokesman for the supervisor.
Latimer pointed out that there is a mail ballot drop-off site adjacent the recreation center, and voters have until Nov. 2 to request a mail ballot they can fill out and drop off at the site. He added that there's an early voting site on 49th Street South in Gulfport, a convenient site to many south side residents.
But Pastor Louis Murphy said given the way that south side residents tend to vote, Pinellas County's Republican-run SOE may have other motives.
“Its always politically motivated, always has been,” he said.
The bigger picture, Sykes said, is a longtime, concerted effort in states like Florida to suppress the African-American vote, largely as a means of blocking Democratic candidates.
“We have it on record the fact that from Tallahassee upward there have been attempts to suppress the black vote, among them having been the extension of time for persons who have served their time, you know, for prison terms, to be given another five to seven years to be considered for restoration of rights, knowing... the predominance of the Democratic vote [that] will be from those persons that are in prison. So this is simply taking one swipe at one thing among many that have made it more difficult for our community to be represented.”