State blocks use of UF student union as early voting center
Election supervisors and the League of Women Voters have a new complaint with Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature over early voting.
After years of complaints by supervisors who struggled with historically long lines at the polls in 2012, lawmakers last year expanded the list of early voting sites to include fairgronds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers and government-owned community centers.
But when the city of Gainesville -- which is heavily Democratic -- asked if it could use the University of Florida student union for early voting in next month's municipal elections, the state said no.
"The Reitz Union is a structure designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution," says an advisory opinion from Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, which is run by a Scott appointee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner. "The terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union."
The opinion noted that the 2013 Legislature rejected an amendment that would have further expanded the definition of early voting sites to include "educational facilities."
"I'm very upset about this," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, president of a statewide supervisors' group. "I just can't understand why they feel the need to be so restrictive about where people are allowed to vote ... This is strategic. They're worried about young people voting."
The union, named for former UF President J. Wayne Reitz, is used as a regular voting precinct in county, state and national elections. About 50,000 students attend UF, and the city said the request to use the Reitz Union for early voting came from a group of students.
With the UF student union now off limits, the city plans to use two early voting sites for the March 11 election, assistant city attorney Nicolle Shalley said. One is about 1.5 miles away and the other about three miles away (an earlier version of this post had incorrect distances).
Senate Ethics & Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored SB 600, the 2013 law that expanded early voting sites, said: "No, no, we really did not specifically allow for them to be on campus." He noted that the law allows for the use of one "bonus" site in an area underserved by other sites, but Shalley said that provision did not apply to Gainesville. Latvala said the city and Detzner's office should "share" responsibility for the controversy.
"The way they (the city) asked the question is the way the department answered it," Latvala said.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters, called it "jaw dropping to consider that we wouldn't open up the student union, the student library and other buildings on campus to make it easier for our leaders of tomorrow to start their civic duty of voting. One can only be left with the impression that the Florida Legislature, Governor and Secretary of State would frankly prefer to discourage student participation."