College students in Florida turned out in droves when given the chance to vote early in the 2018 midterm elections. The Republican-led government in the state seemingly wants to put an end to that.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law last month mandating that early voting sites in the state have “sufficient non-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 one year ago, when a federal judge blocked Florida from banning early vote polling locations 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.
During the highly contested November 2018 midterms several weeks later, students turned out in force: Nearly 60,000 people cast ballots at 12 early voting sites on college campuses throughout Florida.
The new measure signed by DeSantis last month, part of a larger elections reform package passed by the legislature, has been touted under the guise of making 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 access to the ballot box was key to her voting, given her demanding schedule.
“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 voting locations since at least 2014, when former Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive that prevented college campuses from setting up 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. The new law signed by DeSantis is resurrects a claim that voting rights advocates view 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 is not alone in writing creative laws to disenfranchise voters it hopes to keep away from the ballot box. Republican-controlled states throughout the country have been seeking ways to make voting more difficult 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 margin during elections. 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 that voting by mail is also a non-starter. While students can request an absentee ballot that they can mail-in to the elections 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 can find it challenging to drive off campus to vote in the middle of the academic day. At the University of Florida, students who drive off campus to an off-site polling station risk losing their parking space, or face the prospect of having to park far from campus, and the expensive proposition of being ticketed.
Diaz said many students often take jobs and find volunteer work near campus so they can spend as many as 12 hours per day going to classes, electives and working to support their families. Getting out to an off-campus voting site can be an hours-long endeavor that is nearly impossible to pull off, 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.”
This story has been updated to correct the type of parking mandated in the new Florida law. It is non-permitted, not permitted. It also corrects to 12, instead of 11, the number of early balloting stations on Florida campuses in 2018.