Column: Florida is running out of time to give all voters equal early voting

Published Aug. 15, 2016

Florida's supervisors of elections are running out of time to provide equal access to voting to all Florida voters by offering a full two weeks of early in-person voting.

The supervisors of elections across the state work year-round to ensure that the right to vote is a meaningful one for Floridians. They don't get enough credit for being the backbone of our democracy. As the U.S. Supreme Court once said in Reynolds vs. Sims, "The right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights."

Florida law grants supervisors of elections the discretion over how many days of early voting are offered in each county. This has resulted in a confusing patchwork of different early voting days, which can vary county to county, even among counties that are side by side.

My law students — many of whom work while attending school — are busy adults who may not be able to make it to the polls on election day. I can't tell my law students with confidence that "early voting starts today," because chances are early voting starts today for some of them and days later for others, even though they are all (nearly without exception) Florida voters and live within miles of each other.

Where I work at Stetson University College of Law, we have two campuses: one in Gulfport in Pinellas County and one in Tampa in Hillsborough County. For the upcoming primary election, in Gulfport early voting starts on Saturday, but in Tampa early voting started Monday. And of course the rules depend on where the voter lives, not where he or she is working or attending school.

This county-by-county crazy-quilt patchwork approach to early voting in Florida does not give equal access to the polls for our law students or any of the other voters in the greater Tampa Bay area, or voters throughout the state. And this is a nonpartisan issue. Republican, Democratic and independent voters could all use the convenience of early voting.

There is still time for the supervisors of elections across Florida to fix this uneven treatment of Florida voters and to expand early voting to the full two weeks that the law allows for the general election. But time is running out to do the right thing.

Florida is likely to be an important player in the presidential election this fall with its 29 Electoral College votes up for grabs. Especially in the November general election, Floridians need the chance to cast their ballots to make their voices heard during this critical time.

And Floridians also have four important state ballot measures to consider in the general election this year. As Floridians learned the hard way in 2012, when voters rightly take the necessary time to read each ballot measure that is placed before them, the lines on election day get longer. One way to mitigate the potential for multi-hour waits on election day is by expanding early voting in every county in the state.

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Reynolds vs. Sims establishes the principle of "one person, one vote." This principle has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court time and again, including earlier this year in a case arising out of Texas. Honoring that principle of one person, one vote means Florida voters should have an equal right to vote regardless of their ZIP code.

All voters, whether they live in Miami, Tampa, Tallahassee or tiny Gulfport, deserve the full two weeks of early voting that is allowable under Florida law so that each voter can exercise his or her right to vote on an equal basis.

The discretion to expand the franchise to provide more days to vote early is in the hands of the supervisors of elections in each county. I hope that they all use that discretion wisely to help their fellow citizens exercise their precious right to vote.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, associate professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, is author of "Corporate Citizen? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State."