The absurd conclusion by Florida's top elections official that a student union building at a public university is not a government-owned community center only fuels cynicism about government and the Republicans' attempt to keep control of it by suppressing the vote of those who may have a different view. Gov. Rick Scott should order Secretary of State Ken Detzner to review his office's ruling and let early voting take place at the University of Florida's Reitz Union for a March 11 city election.
Florida's Division of Elections director Maria Matthews last month wrote an opinion to the city of Gainesville that UF's Reitz Union — despite functioning as the primary campus community center, a small convention center and having some hotel rooms — did not qualify under law as a government-owned community center or convention center. Therefore, she wrote, the union is not an allowable site for early voting under a 2013 law expanding location options.
Her rationale? She contended that since the Legislature had rejected proposed language that would have explicitly included educational facilities (such as elementary schools, among others) as optional early voting sites, the UF student union building couldn't qualify under any other definition of law as an early voting site.
This pinched reading of the law has stifled even other obvious options for early voting sites. The Gainesville Sun reported Matthews' memo has prompted the city attorney to also advise the mayor against taking advantage of another option under the revised 2013 law to hold early voting in a stadium. UF's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, i.e. The Swamp, she believes, would be viewed by the state as an education facility. Apparently the 90,000 or so football fans who gather there on fall Saturday afternoons are there to study.
This is what happens when government views ensuring voter access not as a democratic obligation but as a political strategy. Almost since the inception of early voting, which tends to attract more Democratic voters, Republicans in Tallahassee have been trying to rig the system to make it less accessible. Case in point: When Florida first implemented early voting in the wake of the 2000 presidential election debacle, early voting sites were limited to city halls or permanent public libraries. And state elections officials under a different Republican governor ruled that university libraries — while clearly permanent public libraries — weren't publicly accessible and couldn't be used.
Never mind, apparently, that all these facilities are accessible to tens of thousands of students, faculty and employees who visit each state university campus every day. This is less about making sure Gainesville follows state law in its March elections and more about making sure no undesirable precedent is set before voters cast ballots in the November election, which will happen to determine whether Scott and three Republican Cabinet members keep their jobs. Cynical, indeed.