Nightmare voting in Palm Coast’s busiest precincts should end based on a proposal that would create two new precincts, for a total of 25 in a plan Flagler County Elections Supervisor proposed to the County Commission today.
The expansion would reduce by almost half Precinct 23, at the VFW Post on Old Kings Road, whose 8,350 voters would be reduced to just under 5,000, with the rest shifted into a new precinct, Number 24, with the polling station at Matanzas High School.
The other new precinct will be Number 10. Currently precinct 9, which votes at First Baptist Church of Bunnell, has over 6,000 voters, Precinct 10 at the Flagler County School Board’s old headquarters has 4,000 voters. The bulk of the precinct boundaries won’t change but the top third of both precincts, with State Road 100 the southern boundary, will be combined and become a new precinct, which itself will be Precinct 10. Those voters will vote at the Flagler Airport, where there’s ample parking with separate entrances and exits for traffic. The Current Precinct 10 will become Precinct 8.
Precinct 18 (Shepherd of the Coast Lutheran Church), which has 6,000 voters, would be redrawn slightly to its numbers would be more balanced with its neighbor precinct, Number 14, at Palm Coast Bible Church on White View Parkway, which has only 3,000 voters. Precinct 21, at Belle Terre Elementary School, large by size and with 5,000 voters, will be balanced out with neighboring Precinct 20 at Park View Baptist Church, will grow from its current 2,100 voters.
Each precinct costs an average of $12,000 for each election cycle, so the two new precincts would add $24,000 to the supervisor’s budget.
This would take place even as early voting and voting by mail now accounts for about six of every 10 ballots cast.
“Help me here,” Commissioner Charlie Ericksen asked Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart today. “What I’m hearing is, it sounds like we’re looking to add precincts because of the increase in the number of people that will vote on election day in a location. Why don’t we extend early voting longer if we can and other incentives to get people in early, and we don’t have to look at new precincts?”
“The early voting period we used for the past two elections was the maximum, except for the last Sunday,” Lenhart said, referring to the two weeks of early voting afforded voters. “So we actually did the full early voting period that we could do.”
That’s true in terms of using the number of days state law allows for early voting. But in fact, early voting could be vastly expanded in Flagler County despite that: in the last cycle for the general election, early voting hours were from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, or eight hours a day. State law gives the supervisor discretion to expand early voting to 12 hours a day—potentially a 50 percent increase that, at either end of the schedule currently used, would give many early risers and late workers a chance to cast ballots. But it would also mean more hourly pay for poll workers.
Based on the numbers Lenhart provided, with six poll workers at a single precinct costing $1,225 per election, a 50 percent increase in hourly pay the expansion would add $15,000 to the bottom line, or almost half the cost of two additional precincts.
Lenhart subsequently emailed a response and detailed her explanation in a comment below.
But even with early voting reducing the pressure of election day, the county’s voting rolls have increased by 10,000 since the 2012 election, to a total of around 80,000.
Early voting also yields another certain benefit: accuracy in ballot distribution, as each ballot is printed specifically for the requesting voter at the moment the request is made, which meant that not a single ballot was handed out by mistake during early voting, Lenhart said. On Election Day, on the other hand, a huge stack of different ballots have to be printed and be ready to be handed out based on each voter’s precinct, greatly expanding the risk of human error. There were some 116 ballot styles in the last election in Flagler.
Precinct boundaries were last changed in May 2012, when there were 35 precincts. They were reduced to 23 under then-Supervisor Kimberle Weeks. The 12 closed locations resulted in “shifting more than half the county’s population,” Lenhart said. “If you notice the year, 2012, that was a difficult time to be doing that but it was necessary for us with redistricting. So that shift has created very densely populated precincts in our county.”
Why change now? Timing. “We did the last change during a presidential cycle, a couple months before a primary election and confused half the county and where they should vote, that’s why we need to do this in 2017 instead of right before an election,” Lenhart said, giving the office time to advertise and people time to adjust.
There was a concern, first spoken by Commissioner Dave Sullivan, about how the redrawing of the map would affect party elections to the Flagler County Republican Party’s ranks of committee representatives.
“This appears to be a bit disruptive to the party organization, inasmuch as we have many of these precincts loaded,” said Bob Updegrave, who manages the committee candidates for the local Republican Party. In Precinct 23, for example, there are nine men and nine women in precinct positions, he told commissioners. When the precinct is split, some seats would be lost in the new Precinct 23, with those seats moved “into a vacuum” in Precinct 24. “We need to get with the state party leadership and figure out how this is going to work and how the party is going to handle it.” Some 120 people serve as elected or appointed members of the Republican Executive Committee locally.
Updegrave asked commissioners to table the changes until the party has a chance to review the situation.
He was not about to get resistance from the commission: it is stocked with five Republicans, and this is one of those instances where the recent GOP sweep of all local offices, in the November elections, will show its consequences at a level that has little to do with local policy or broader public issues, and entirely to do with internal party politics.
Even though the issue mostly affects just one precinct, commissioners agreed to delay the vote approving the new precincts—which was scheduled for this evening—for 30 days. When Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin asked Lenhart if she was OK with the plan, a somewhat miffed supervisor—whose presentation had gone without a hitch until then—said: “It’s really the board’s decision.”
Updegrave stressed it wasn’t the party’s intention “to jam this up,” and said he was willing to work it out in a matter of days.
“Any change needs some reaction time to it,” Ericksen said, preferring a 30-day wait. The commission agreed to vote on the proposal on June 19 instead of tonight.
Commissioner Donald O’Brien, alone among the commissioners, had detected the unusual nature of the maneuver, since the commission was now acceding to an intraparty issue that had nothing to do with the commission’s responsibility. “I just wanted to be real clear that this is commission business,” he said. “It’s a courtesy that we’re doing this for whatever—Democrat Party, Republican Party, doesn’t matter. We’re doing it as a courtesy to try to get some feedback and give them time to adjust to it. But at the end of the day we have to move forward, make a decision and be done with it, and give Kaiti enough time to get it out there in the public. If that’s the tenor of the discussion, I’m fine with that, but I wouldn’t want to see it much longer, and I would be inclined to accept the recommendations of the professionals, the wait Kaiti has laid things out. It seems reasonable.”
“I think that is the inclination of this board,” McLaughlin said.
Updegrave, sensitive to the perception that he was holding up public business for party interests, intervened again and asked the commission to again change course and “run with it,” meaning Lenhart’s plan, without delay. “I don’t see anything changing,” he said, “I believe it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with as a party. The other party is going to have to deal with it as well, and the chips will fall where they may. I think the supervisor of elections has done a good job in terms of balancing this thing up, so let’s not let the Republican Party stand in the way of this critical change.”
But by then, with Ericksen still urging 30 days, the rest of the commission agreed to stick with that delay. “It’s not on you, it’s on the board, Mr. Updegrave,” McLaughlin said. “Thank you for weighing in and giving us that reprieve.”
The next election is less than 10 months away, in March 2018.