Florida’s early voting ban on campus challenged in court

Gov. Rick Scott calls lawsuit 'frivolous' and 'an election year gimmick to distort the facts.'
Early voting in Miami-Dade in 2016 [Howard Cohen - Miami Herald]
Early voting in Miami-Dade in 2016 [Howard Cohen - Miami Herald]
Published May 22, 2018|Updated May 22, 2018

A new lawsuit accuses Gov. Rick Scott's administration of making it more difficult for young people to vote by preventing early voting at public buildings on state university campuses.

The election-year complaint filed Tuesday by the League of Women Voters seeks to strike down a four-year-old interpretation of Florida's early voting laws by Scott's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Detzner's office issued an opinion in 2014 that the Legislature's expansion of early voting sites to include "government-owned community centers" does not include the student union building on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

The city of Gainesville asked if the Reitz Student Union building on the UF campus could serve as an early voting site in 2014. The state said no.

"The result of the secretary's interpretation of the early voting statute is an unjustifiable burden on the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of eligible Florida voters," the complaint asserts. "Those burdens fall particularly and disproportionately on the state's young voters."

As a result, the lawsuit claims, many young people will find it "difficult, and in some cases, impossible" to vote in 2018.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on behalf of five students at the University of Florida and a sixth student at Florida State in Tallahassee who said they have faced transportation and logistical barriers in trying to vote.

It's the latest case in which the governor is accused of making it harder for Floridians to vote. Scott has said he has made the state "one of the most voter-friendly states in the nation."

In response to the lawsuit, Scott's office said UF students can vote at Reitz Union and two other public buildings on campus. But that's only on Election Day. Scott's office noted that he signed a 2013 law that expands early voting locations and that Florida offers no-excuse absentee voting.

"The political organization and the partisan D.C. lawyers that filed this frivolous lawsuit know that under Gov. Scott's leadership, he has made it easier for Floridians to vote," Scott's office said. "This political group waited four years to challenge this interpretation. This is obviously an election-year gimmick to distort the facts."

Detzner declined comment, saying he had not yet seen the lawsuit.

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Also joining the case is the Priorities USA Foundation, which says it is the largest financial supporter of voting rights cases in the country.

The legal action comes as Scott, a Republican, is campaigning to unseat three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and young voters are being mobilized to register to vote following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

Some of those new young voters will be incoming college freshmen in the fall and will cast their first ballots in the 2018 election.

Early voting has steadily grown in popularity since it started in Florida in 2004 in response to the chaos that surrounded the presidential recount in 2000.

Statewide, two-thirds of all Florida voters who cast ballots in 2016 voted early or by mail.

The origins of the latest legal clash between Scott and voting rights groups can be traced to Scott's first year in office in 2011.

That year, Scott signed into law a Republican-backed elections bill that reduced early voting hours. The change produced record seven-hour waits and accusations of voter suppression in the 2012 election in which President Barack Obama won a second term in Florida.

The bill, HB 1355, also greatly expanded the use of provisional ballots to include voters who had moved since they last voted but had not updated their voting address — a situation common to college students.

A year later, the Legislature backtracked and expanded early voting days, hours and locations to include a "fairgrounds, civic center, courthouse, county commission building, stadium, convention center, government-owned senior center and government-owned community center."

A ruling by Detzner's office on Jan. 17, 2014, said the UF student union building fit none of those definitions, sparking immediate controversy.

"The Reitz Union is a structure designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution," said the opinion, written by Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections. "The terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union or any other college- or university-related facilities that were rejected by the Legislature as early voting sites."

The League of Women Voters called that reading of the law an "unsubstantiated and unsupportable leap" that must be struck down as a violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Twenty-Sixth amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Democratic legislators filed bills and amendments in 2013 that would have included state college- and university-owned buildings on the list of early voting sites, but the majority Republicans rejected them.

The chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee at the time was former Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has said: "No, no, we really did not specifically allow for them (early voting sites) to be on campus."