Judge rules Florida cannot block early voting on college campuses

July 27, 2018

During the last election, students at the University of Florida at Gainesville had to use two buses to reach their polling place—wasting about an hour each way. The reason: Florida’s top election official wouldn’t allow them—nor any of the 830,000 students enrolled at public institutions of higher education in the state―to vote early on campus, the Huffington Post reported on July 25.

But that could soon change. On July 24, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Florida Mark Walker temporarily blocked the policy—ruling that the state’s across-the-board ban on early voting on college campuses is unconstitutional.

Walker found that the ban violated the guarantees of the First, 14th and 26th amendments. The 26th Amendment prohibits age restrictions on voting for anyone 18 or older. While he conceded that some inconvenience when voting is constitutionally tolerable, Walker said that Florida’s position went beyond that. The ban made it more difficult for a particular group of people―young voters around college campuses―to vote.

“Florida’s public college and university students are categorically prohibited from on-campus early voting,” he wrote. “This is not a mere inconvenience.”

The ban has its origin in a 2013 state law that lays out where local election supervisors may allow early voting. Approved locations for early voting  included stadiums, civic and convention centers, as well as government-owned senior and community centers.

But in 2014, the office of Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R) issued an opinion saying the student union at the University of Florida, a state-funded institution, didn’t qualify as such a place, because it was “designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution.” He went further, saying that the law did not permit early voting at “college- or university-related facilities” because lawmakers had explicitly chosen to exclude them from the bill.

In his ruling Tuesday, the judge said the state’s justifications “reek of pretext,” HuffPost reported. “While the [Detzner’s] Opinion does not identify college students by name, its target population is unambiguous and its effects are lopsided,” the judge wrote. “The Opinion is intentionally and facially discriminatory.”

Walker listed a number of reasons why access to early voting sites, in particular, is important for college students. While they can vote on election day, the judge wrote, the lines are often long. Student communities also face longer transportation times to early voting sites, and people living near college and university campuses disproportionately lack cars. College students in Florida also vote early at higher rates than their counterparts across the country, he said.

Through the ban, the judge concluded, Florida was “creating a secondary class of voters whom [the state] prohibits from even seeking early voting sites in dense, centralized locations where they work, study, and, in many cases, live.”

McKinley Lewis, a spokesperson for Florida Governor Rick Scott (R), said in a statement the governor was proud to have signed an early voting expansion and would review the ruling.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 50 million voters were expected to cast early, absentee, and mail-in ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In 2012, 46 million voters—nearly 36% of the total—cast ballots in some manner other than at a traditional polling place on Election Day.

Research contact: samuel.levine@huffpost.com

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