Equal Access Matters: Florida Students Turn Out At On-Campus Early Voting Locations in 2018

This op-ed was originally published in Forbes on September 17, 2019.

Margaret Sasser, the programs and communications manager at the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and Megan Newsome, an Andrew Goodman Foundation Puffin Democracy Fellow, are guest contributors for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.

If you believe that equal access to our democracy matters, then consider this. A year ago, University of Florida students would have had to walk thirty-two minutes, one way, to vote at their closest early voting location at the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office.

During the early voting period for the 2018 General Election, 60,000 Floridians cast their ballots at twelve early voting locations on college and university campuses, including the University of Florida’s. This newly expanded access to on-campus voting was in large part due to the persistence of young leaders, like Megan Newsome, and the voting rights organizations that empowered them.

These twelve early voting locations became a reality because Megan Newsome, then a student at the University of Florida, recognized that students’ lack of early voting access on her campus—and on campuses across Florida—was unacceptable. In her 2017 op-ed for The Gainesville Sun, she outlined her multi-year advocacy campaign that had led to this point: registering thousands of student voters in 2015, providing shuttles from campus to the closest early voting location for hundreds of students in 2016, and meeting with legislators to propose a revision of election law in 2017.

She knew that the Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s interpretation of the current law, which banned early voting locations from campuses, was not fair for students. What she didn’t realize was that the secretary was in violation of the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the unabridged right to vote to citizens eighteen years of age or older. Her op-ed, a last-ditch awareness effort in her multi-year advocacy campaign, became the catalyst for change across Florida.

At the time of her op-ed, Megan was an Ambassador with The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF). At AGF, our mission is to “make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy,” and one of the ways we do that is through mentoring college students like Megan in our national nonpartisan civic engagement program, Vote Everywhere. Our Ambassadors develop their leadership skills as they register and educate voters and tear down voting barriers, all with the goal of increasing the voting rate among young people.

Megan’s powerful op-ed caught the eye of Priorities USA Foundation, who championed the idea that Florida’s college students should have equal access to early voting. With their support, in June 2018, AGF, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Vote Everywhere Ambassadors Megan Newsome and Jaime Roy, and four other college students filed a lawsuit to challenge Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner. Till then, his interpretation of FL Statute 101.657 had banned Florida’s Supervisors of Election from selecting college campuses to host early voting locations.

By July 2018, we had won a major victory. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted a preliminary injunction, which revoked the ban. A precedential application of the 26th Amendment, his order defended the right to vote just in time for early voting in the 2018 General Election.

Judge Walker’s preliminary injunction released a wave of advocacy and organizing in Florida to add early voting locations to college campuses. With the support of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, a movement of dedicated and triumphant partner organizations was born. Florida’s student leaders and dozens of partners—including AGF, All Voting Is Local, ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, Campus Vote Project, Emgage, Engage Miami, Florida Student Power Network, League of Women Voters of Florida, NextGen America, NASPA, StudentPIRGs, Vote Mob, #VoteTogether, Young Invincibles, and other grassroots groups—urged supervisors to create equal opportunities for student voting.

Ultimately, early voting locations were established at twelve of Florida’s college and university campuses, where a stunning 60,000 voters cast their ballots ahead of the 2018 General Election. We were thrilled that three of our Vote Everywhere campuses in Florida—Miami Dade College’s Kendall and North campuses and the University of Florida—hosted early voting locations.

In July of 2019, AGF released On-Campus Early In-Person Voting in Florida in the 2018 General Election, our new report written by Daniel A. Smith, Ph.D., that evaluates the turnout at and impact of these twelve early voting locations. Among the report’s insights are the following key findings:

  • 56 percent of the total early in-person ballots at on-campus locations were cast by voters aged 18-29 years, a larger percentage than at other sites;
  • Hispanic and Black voters disproportionately cast ballots at the on-campus locations; and
  • On-campus locations helped to mobilize young registered voters, including those who stayed home in 2016.

What we learned is just how important on-campus early voting locations are for expanding student voting rights and access in Florida—and beyond. This report shows that when students have the same opportunity and convenience as other voters, they turn out. With these findings to fuel us, we plan to continue to advocate for on-campus voting locations at Vote Everywhere partner campuses where student access to voting is curtailed and to champion the 26th Amendment, especially as we near its 50th anniversary in 2021.

We also learned that our work is not over. Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that includes a parking requirement for early voting locations as a means to limit the viability of on-campus locations. That’s why AGF, along with the leadership of young people and our partners, will continue to organize and advocate collectively to make Florida’s on-campus early voting locations permanent. Equal access matters.

More than 500 colleges and universities currently participate in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Learn more about the Challenge and donate to advance our work here.