The Battle to Expand Student Access to Early Polling in Florida

In Florida, no college or university student can vote early on their campus. Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner’s interpretation of the state’s early-voting law prohibits public buildings, such as libraries or community centers, on college and university campuses from serving as early-polling sites, even if they would otherwise qualify. With 3,874,929 Florida residents using early-polling sites in the 2016 General Election, surpassing the number of Election Day voters and absentee voters, and making up just over 40 percent of the voting population, Floridians show a clear preference for early voting.

Florida has some of the longest Election Day lines in the nation, increasing the importance of early voting accessibility. By prohibiting campus buildings from serving as early-polling sites, Secretary Detzner impedes hundreds of thousands of students at public colleges and universities in Florida from voting by their preferred method. The Andrew Goodman Foundation and our Vote Everywhere Ambassadors in Florida view this as a blatant attack on students’ access to the ballot and have undertaken efforts to restore full voting rights to students across Florida.

Vote Everywhere Ambassadors at University of Florida began the effort locally by offering transportation to the polls. Over 100 students used the shuttle service they provided during the 2016 Presidential Election. According to Vote Everywhere Alumna Megan Newsome, the students repeatedly said that they “would not have been able to vote without this provision.” Megan, who graduated in 2017 and now serves as a Puffin Democracy Fellow, had no car during the time she lived on campus and experienced the difficulties of voting as a student firsthand. To vote early, she walked thirty minutes each way through extreme weather. “The weather in Florida is known for alternating between severe heat and sudden rain, and that’s exactly what I dealt with that day,” she says. “Even when students are interested in voting, if they see it’s raining outside and the temperature is over 100 degrees, they probably won’t go.”

While public transportation provides an option for some, the necessity to take a double bus to reach the nearest early-polling site from University of Florida’s campus means a round trip of approximately two hours. Many students and faculty, even those living off campus, do not have room in their schedules to leave campus for such an extended period of time.

Despite the Vote Everywhere team’s efforts to bridge the gap by helping UF students access the polls, Megan and her co-Ambassador Jaime Roy realized the problem extended beyond their campus. Initially, they attempted to convince legislators to change the law to specifically permit campus buildings to serve as early-polling sites. They first spoke with State Representative Chuck Clemons, who dismissed the request, claiming if students had a strong desire to vote, they would surmount the obstacles they faced.

Next, they approached State Senator Keith Perry, presenting him with a written draft of their proposed bill, which he dismissively claimed was too late to introduce. Later, at the on-campus Early Voting Forum, an event the Vote Everywhere team co-hosted with the League of Women Voters and other campus groups, Perry spoke with the bill in-hand, saying he would introduce it at the next legislative session. While this show of support for on-campus early voting represented a positive step, the team knew that Sen. Perry was up for reelection, and they could not rely on his ability to help their cause.

Because the legislative avenue did not prove promising for prompt restoration of students’ voting rights, Megan Newsome, Jaime Roy, and four other students joined the League of Women Voters in filing a complaint against Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner on May 22, 2018. Priorities USA Foundation decided to financially back the lawsuit after Guy Cecil, the chairman of the foundation and an alumnus of University of Florida, read an op-ed Megan wrote in November 2017 and became interested in the issue. To combat the electoral discrimination against student voters in the state of Florida, The Andrew Goodman Foundation has joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. Together with the other plaintiffs, we allege that Secretary Detzner’s interpretation discriminatorily denies student voters equal access to the electoral process.

If the lawsuit is successful, Puffin Democracy Fellow Megan Newsome and the University of Florida Vote Everywhere team are committed to establishing early-polling places on their campus and on public college and university campuses statewide. The possible success of this lawsuit and the efforts that would follow have the potential to make voting more accessible to hundreds of thousands of students in the state of Florida.

About the Author

Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.