Judge Hears Arguments In College Early Voting Sites Case

Florida elections officials were wrong to block on-campus early voting sites in Gainesville and Tallahassee, lawyers for the League of Women Voters of Florida told a federal judge Monday.

But attorneys representing the state argued there was no indication that college students --- or anyone else --- would have voting rights abridged due to an advisory opinion under scrutiny in the federal lawsuit filed this year by the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave no indication how he would rule after hearing nearly three hours of arguments Monday in the case, which involves the state’s position about early voting locations at the University of Florida and Florida State University.

The controversy is centered on whether the constitutional rights of students were violated by an interpretation of a state law by Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office.

Detzner’s office in 2014 found that a student union on the University of Florida campus did not meet statutory guidelines for early voting sites, which are limited to government offices, such as county courthouses, and voting offices, along with government-owned community centers and convention centers. The law also allows county elections officials to choose one “wild card” locale.

The lawsuit alleged the state was placing “an unjustifiable burden on the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of eligible Florida voters” and that Detzner's policy “disproportionately” impacted the state’s younger voters.

But lawyers for the state argued that the advisory opinion, authored by Department of State Division Director Maria Matthews, has not done any harm.

“There has been no claim whatsoever that one person has been denied the right to vote,” Mohammad Jazil, a private lawyer representing the Department of State, told the judge during arguments Monday.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the early voting site at the J. Wayne Reitz Union on the University of Florida campus meets the threshold of a government-owned facility eligible to be an early voting site and that the site was necessary for students and workers who could not vote elsewhere because they were tethered to parking spots snagged after they arrived on campus in the morning.

About 68 percent of Gainesville voters work at or attend the university, and the nearest early-voting site is about a mile away, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

Walker queried both sides on the issue during Monday’s arguments, asking lawyers for the state why allowing the early voting site on campus would not give more access to students and others.

Lawyers for the state said elections officials could choose a “wild card” location, permissible under state law, if they wanted to use sites such as Reitz Union.

But Elisabeth Frost, who represents the plaintiffs, said that, in Alachua County, the “wild card” spot had already been allocated to a church more than 20 miles north, to accommodate minority voters in the rural area.

She argued that the advisory opinion would keep young voters from being able to cast ballots.

“There’s a shadow cast that is keeping supervisors from putting early voting sites where young voters are,” Frost said. “At a certain point you have to call a banana a banana.”

The judge pressed the state to explain what its position would be in the future, should he agree that the secretary of state’s advisory opinion didn’t amount to irreparable harm, as the plaintiffs are seeking.

And he questioned whether requiring students to walk a mile to cast their ballots was equitable.

“Florida’s young population is going to have trouble getting to early vote,” the judge noted. “At some point, common sense has to come into play.”

Walker angrily demanded an answer from the state’s lawyers, asking if the state would allow supervisors of elections to allow early voting on campus sites such as the Reitz Union.

“It’s a bit of a difficult question for us to answer,” Florida Department of State General Counsel David Fugett said. “I can’t imagine why we would say no to that, but there’s lots of things I can’t imagine.”

Ion Sancho, who served as Leon County elections supervisor for nearly three decades, told reporters that universities like Florida State and UF have “large, dense populations of basically captive citizens.”

“Quite frankly, if you are charged with making voting accessible, what you do want to do with early voting locations is put them in dense residential areas where people lack transportation,” he said. “I believe it’s simply part of the partisan politics of our culture. Quite frankly, Republicans don’t want young people to vote today.”

Photo used under Creative Commons license.