College students can hardly get to the polls. Florida’s new law is making it even harder.
Florida college students turned out in droves to vote early in the 2018 mid-term elections. Apparently, the state-led Republican government wants to end that.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law last month mandating that early voting sites in the state have “sufficient permitted parking” — something in notoriously short supply on college campuses where early voting stations have been wildly popular.
The Andrew Goodman Foundation, (which advocates for broader access to the polls, especially by young voters), the League of Women Voters of Florida, and eight college students are now suing to block the new law.
The filing in U.S. District Court last week is part of an ongoing legal battle waged by voting rights advocates seeking to make balloting easier for college students in the state.
Students won a previous legal skirmish nearly a year ago, when a federal judge blocked Florida from banning polling sites on campuses. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker issued a preliminary injunction allowing early voting locations on college campuses, ruling the state’s ban unconstitutional.
Several weeks later, students emerged in force during the highly contested midterms in November 2018: nearly 60,000 people cast ballots at 11 early voting sites on campuses across Florida.
The new measure signed by DeSantis last month, part of the legislature’s larger electoral reform package, has been promoted to make voting more accessible by focusing on parking availability.
In reality, advocates say, it appears to be the latest effort by the Republican-led state to ensure that college students — who tend to vote Democratic — don’t get to the ballot box.
Rebecca Diaz, a recent student at Miami Dade College, told ThinkProgress that, given her demanding schedule, accessing the ballot box was key to her vote.
“I’m one of those students that stays early in the day, leaves late in the night and does many of my activities on campus. So I know that it will be much more difficult for me to find the time to go in and vote if it’s not on campus,” said Diaz, speaking about the commuter school attended largely by students of color and students of limited means.
“The actions that I’ve seen these lawmakers take, it’s in my opinion to directly disenfranchise specific voters,” said Diaz, who is transferring to the University of Florida in the fall.
Republican lawmakers in Florida have been trying to stop colleges from setting up early polling stations since at least 2014, when former State Secretary Ken Detzner issued a directive preventing the setting up of such sites.
Detzner at the time forbade the University of Florida from setting up an early voting location because college campuses were not included on a list of eligible early voting sites that had been expanded one year earlier to reduce lines.
Detzner argued at the time that parking restrictions make campuses unsuitable for early polling locations. DeSantis’ new law resurrects a claim that voting rights advocate views with skepticism.
Megan Newsome, a recent University of Florida graduate now working on a doctorate in astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it is “obvious” why the Republican legislature passed the law months after students throughout the state utilized on-campus early voting in droves.
“Now we are going into a really highly anticipated presidential election year where turnout expects to be through the roof,” said Newsome, who was among the students who originally pushed for early voting on college campuses and the legal challenge to the ruling.
“It is no secret to me what this is trying to allude to or prevent in terms of turnout,” she said.
Florida isn’t alone in writing creative laws to keep voters out of the ballot box. Republican-controlled states across the country have sought ways to make voting harder for reliably Democratic voters—including college students or people of color.
But the Sunshine State is known for its epic battles pitting the state’s Republican-controlled governor’s office and legislature against advocacy groups seeking to block draconian voter suppression laws.
Florida is also infamous for its sometimes razor-thin electoral margin. In last November’s governor’s race, for example, DeSantis narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by just 30,000 votes.
Florida’s new law disallowing campuses without sufficient parking from hosting early voting sites was passed just as the 2020 presidential race heats up.
Newsome said that if not for the early voting site on campus, students at the University of Florida in Gainesville — many of whom don’t own transportation — would have to travel more than a mile to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office to cast an early ballot vote in person. That’s a particularly tall order for students without cars, since the office is not accessible by public transportation.
Some students say mail voting is also non-starter. While students may request an absentee ballot to mail to the election office, it is not always a reliable option.
During last November’s midterm elections, 4,000 absentee ballots were initially discarded because election officials determined that the voters’ signature on the ballot did not exactly match the signature on state files.
“Voting in person as of right now with, in my opinion, our flawed vote by mail system, is the safest way to make sure your vote is going to count,” said Newsome.
Even students with cars may find it challenging to drive off campus to vote mid-academic day. At the University of Florida, students driving off campus to an off-site polling station risk losing their parking space, or face the prospect of having to park away from campus, and the expensive ticket proposal.
Diaz said many students often take jobs and find volunteer work near campus so they can spend as many as 12 hours a day going to classes, choices, and work supporting their families. Getting to an off-campus voting site can be an almost impossible hour-long effort, she told ThinkProgress.
“If you take away the accessibility of these early voting sites,” she said, “then it’s basically taking away a huge portion of the youth electorate.”