Town debates polling places

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 12:08 a.m.
ALACHUA - Such is politics in this town that the location of polling places has become an issue before the slate of candidates is set.
At the center of the debate is a precinct in the private, gated Turkey Creek subdivision and whether voting should be held at the downtown Alachua fire station, which some say might be unsafe.
The debate raises questions of fairness and access to voters by candidates.
Alachua County Elections Supervisor Bev Hill said the issues are illustrative of the mine fields that must be navigated during elections, particularly in rural areas where few public buildings exist.
She noted, for instance, that some people believe churches are not appropriate polling places, but said they are often the only spots available in some areas.
"These things can get very complicated. It's not as simple as it seems," Hill said. "Where are the buildings? There are no recreation centers out there. There are no public buildings - city hall can't have an election there. I hear this all over, even in Gainesville."
Hill sets the polling places in the city of Alachua for countywide elections. She had five polling places in Alachua for the 2002 races.
The Alachua City Commission sets polling places for its own elections and traditionally has had just one polling place - the downtown fire station.
Turkey Creek was first used as a polling place by Hill last year. The gates were left open for public access during polling hours.
Turkey Creek residents want to keep it as a polling place for the coming City Commission races for the convenience of southeastern Alachua residents.
But members of the Alachua Leadership Alliance, a government watchdog group, oppose the location and pledge to fight it.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bonnie Burgess wants a polling place in the fire station, where city elections have historically been held. The downtown polling place was in a church near the fire station, which was not as accessible for some voters and a place in which others said they did not feel comfortable.
The City Commission must come to a decision about its polling places in a few weeks.
Officials with the state Division of Elections said polling places in gated communities are not uncommon.
Turkey Creek is the largest subdivision on that end of the city.
"There was a petition passed around Turkey Creek and within two days they got 271 signatures of people who want that precinct opened up," said Bud Calderwood, who does not live in Turkey Creek but supports the precinct there. "The county primary and the county election had over a 44 percent turnout. It is unbelievable for a polling place to have that kind of turnout. It's very popular and the people out there seem to want it."
City Commissioner James Lewis lives in Turkey Creek and said he supports a polling place there.
But Vice Mayor Tamara Robbins said a polling place should not be held in a private community where candidates have not been free to go campaigning door-to-door prior to the election.
"I can say as a candidate who walked numerous neighborhoods, I felt it was very unfortunate I did not have the opportunity to meet the citizens of Turkey Creek, who have as much right to representation of their elected officials," Robbins said. "That is like a private polling place in there."
Alliance President Robert Perez said having a polling place in a private subdivision is not democratic.
"I can tell you right now - if Turkey Creek is going to be called a polling place, it is going to be a problem and the state elections board is going to have to settle it," Perez said.
Polling preferences Both Hill and the state elections office said polling places are allowed in gated subdivisions provided access is not limited. State officials said the practice is common in South Florida and added that, in North Florida, some polling places are in the garages of private homes.
Hill said she has not been involved in the city's discussion over the Turkey Creek matter.
Burgess said she prefers that one polling place be the fire station. She said the station is easily accessible for voters who live nearby and who do not have transportation to a different polling place.
Police Chief Robert Jernigan and others have said the fire station parking lot and U.S. 441, which it is on, gets too crowded with traffic to safely continue it as a polling place. Burgess, however, said traffic will be alleviated if other polling places, such as Turkey Creek, are also established.
"I've had too many citizens approach me about not having that station open," Burgess said. "If people from the (south) end don't have to come in, that's 1,500 voters less voters at the fire station."
Hill created polling places at two Baptist churches in Alachua. The city must decide if it wants to have voting at either one for the city election.
Polling places in churches tend to draw the most complaints, Hill said. But again, Hill said, places to stage elections are often hard to come by.
"Sure, some people find it offensive to vote in churches, but there is an Attorney General's opinion that it is OK," Hill said. "I tell everybody I can understand it is offensive to vote in a church. I tell people, if you can find me a secular building we will move instantly."
The Alachua election will be in April. The seats now held by Lewis and Orien Hills are up for grabs. Both will run for re-election.
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@

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