A tiny provision slipped into a new election law could block early voting sites on campuses

By: - July 9, 2019 7:00 am
Leon County

Photo by CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

With the 2020 election in Florida expected to be decided by a narrow margin, everything counts – even college campus parking, believe it or not.

That’s why ongoing litigation about early voting sites on Florida’s campuses could matter greatly in next fall’s general election.

At issue is whether more college kids will be able to vote early on campuses come next year, and how the youth vote could be skewed if early voting isn’t accessible.

And the situation hinges on what early voting advocates call an unusual poison pill — sufficient parking on colleges campuses.

Here’s what’s going on:

The League of Women Voters of Florida filed a lawsuit against the state more than a year ago, challenging a 2014 announcement by then-Secretary of State Ken Detzner that prevented early voting sites on college campuses.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled last summer that the action was unconstitutional, and ultimately, eight supervisors of elections chose to place early voting sites on college campuses in their jurisdictions (Those sites were in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Alachua, Duval, Escambia, Leon and Orange counties).

But now comes an election reform bill signed late last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis that is stoking concerns from groups pushing for an expansion of early voting on college campuses.

The new law says that supervisors of elections can designate a variety of public places (such as libraries, city halls, courthouses and government-owned communities centers) to be used as early voting sites, as long as they “provide sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.”

That’s seen as a poison pill by advocates for expanding the early vote on college campuses.

“The provision is a blatant attempt to bar early voting sites from campuses and disenfranchise students,” read a statement from NextGen Florida, the Tom Steyer-sponsored group that spent millions of dollars working to activate the youth vote in Florida in 2018 and is working on such efforts for the 2020 election.

Priorities USA Foundation, a Democratic Party affiliated political action committee, joined in with the League of Women Voters of Florida on Monday in amending their 2018 lawsuit challenging the provision regarding the parking requirement. “We will not stand by and let lawmakers try to keep young Floridians from exercising their right to vote,” says Guy Cecil, chairman of the Priorities USA Foundation.

The Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections worked closely with Spring Hill Republican Blaise Ingoglia, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, on many of the provisions included in the legislation signed by DeSantis. But the section banning permitted parking spots from early voting sites was not one of them.

“This is not something that the supervisors asked for, or were in favor of,” says Okaloosa Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who until late May had been serving as the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Lux says the supervisors did not officially take a position on the provision, but they were even more opposed to an earlier floated proposal that would have banned early voting sites from locations that require paid parking.

The lawsuit between the League of Women Voters of Florida and the state has continued since the spring of 2018, but the parking issue adds another layer to the legal fight.

“This issue has never been about parking,” says league president Patricia Brigham. “This has always been about easy access to early voting sites for college students and university students who live on campus, many of whom don’t have cars. And we all know that finding a non-metered space on a college campus is challenging because students, faculty and staff have to have parking permits. And visitor parking lots are fairly small, so this action by the Legislature is disappointing.”

The provision was written into the legislation by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala.

Baxley did not respond to the Phoenix last week, but told the Huffington Post “I just think it’s reasonable that if you want to have a voting location, you need a certain amount of square footage. You need a certain amount of visibility. You need to have somewhere they can park to get there.”

Other Republicans in Florida agree.

“If we are going to spend public funds on early voting locations, they should be accessible to the public,” says Evan Power, the chairman of the Leon County Republican Executive Committee. “Providing non-permitted parking seems a reasonable request and good public policy.”

The early voting sites on college campuses last year included Florida State and Florida A&M University, which shared a spot at the Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee. Miami Dade College hosted early voting sites on their North and Kendall campuses.

Several election offices worked last year to ensure there was set-aside parking for early voters. At the University of South Florida’s campus in North Tampa, for example, more than 4,600 people voted at the Yuengling Center, a basketball arena with its own parking lot for events.

“USF accommodated our parking needs in 2018 with more than enough open spaces, so we’re hopeful that will be the case in 2020, as well,” says Gerri Kramer, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

Supervisor Paul Lux says that supervisors of elections throughout Florida who want to place early voting sites on college campuses next year should be active now in working on arrangements to reserve a group of available spots for early voters.

The parking debate is part of a larger issue, with Republicans believing it is unfair to place early voting sites in areas that they contend clearly favor Democrats.

Nelson Diaz, the former chairman of the Miami-Dade County Republicans, said he’s a strong supporter of early voting, but says placing them on college campuses are going to disproportionately favor Democratic voters.

According to exit polls conducted by NPR, two-thirds of American millennials aged 18-29 voted Democrat in 2018, up 12 points from the 2014 midterm.

Retired University of South Florida political science professor Susan McManus says that college students in general (Democrats, Republicans and independents) do lean more to the left. McManus says that there has generally been a universal sentiment to encourage young people to vote, and having early voting sites on college campuses is “certainly one way of doing that.”

But do early voting locations on campuses actually increase voter turnout among young voters?

In a recently published paper written by University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith and University of North Florida political scientist Enrijeta Shino, the availability of early voting sites on college campuses in 2018 did in fact have “a positive effect on the youth turnout (18-22 year-olds) compared to older registrants in seven of the eight counties that implemented the policy.” 




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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.