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Steve Bousquet: Early-vote ban at UF is red meat for Democrats

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature finally gave in last year and expanded early voting sites to include civic centers, courthouses, stadiums and a few other categories, including "government-owned community centers."

All it took were years of complaints from frustrated elections supervisors and epic lines at the 2012 polls that made Florida the butt of national jokes — again.

But the state's interpretation of the law is giving fresh ammunition to critics of Gov. Rick Scott, and it's helping Democrats revive their battle cry that Republicans want to suppress voter turnout.

A group of students at the University of Florida recently asked Gainesville leaders if early voting for next month's municipal elections could be held at the J. Wayne Reitz Student Union, a center of activity at the state university. Unsure if the building is a "government-owned community center," officials in the solidly Democratic city asked the state for legal guidance.

The answer: No.

After we posted this scoop on The Buzz blog last week, Democrats got enraged, especially when they learned that the student union long has been used by Alachua County as a polling place in state elections.

But in this case, the state issued the right opinion under the law. Blame the Republican-led Legislature.

Lawmakers never wanted early voting on campuses, a point confirmed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who was instrumental in writing that elections bill, SB 600.

"No, we really did not specifically allow for them to be on campus," he said.

Latvala blames the city of Gainesville in part for the controversy, citing a section of law that allows a "wild card" early voting site in each county.

But the site must be in an area "that does not have any of the eligible early voting locations," and Assistant City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said that she did not think the student union qualified. Latvala cited UCF as a school with on-campus voting, but it is only on election day, not for early voting.

Some Democrats, led by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill last year to allow early voting at a "state university facility" but HB 25 never got a hearing in the House. Democrats tried to amend other bills to allow early voting on campuses and those efforts failed, too.

"The question needs to be asked: Why are we discouraging young people from voting?" asks Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "The answer is, it's political."

Gainesville will have two early voting sites for city elections on March 11. One is about 1.5 miles from campus and the other is about 3 miles away.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson appeared at UF on Monday to renew his accusation that Republicans want to "patently suppress the vote."

Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor whose order to extend early voting in 2008 horrified then-fellow Republicans, will visit the campus Wednesday.

"An outrage," Crist tweeted.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Correction: UCF has used campus buildings for election day voting, but not for early voting. An earlier version of this column was incorrect on the point.

Steve Bousquet: Early-vote ban at UF is red meat for Democrats 02/10/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3:50pm]
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