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Saturday, Jul 12, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: Let college students vote early at the student union

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Not too long ago, any effort to change election law that seemed to restrict voting rights would have been tantamount to political suicide regardless of which party was attempting the change. But now there appears to be no shame or fear.

For many years there was an emphasis on increasing voter turnout. As Florida grew so did the number of polling places and the expansion of voting methods. Absentee ballots were open to everyone, not only to those who could demonstrate they were unable to vote on Election Day. My party, the Republican Party, was quick to embrace absentee voting and expertly adapted to campaigning to absentee voters.

Early-voting days were added as a convenience to those who found it difficult to make it to the polls on Election Day. This appealed to those working long or irregular shifts and became popular among the working class, younger voters and minorities.

In a state as large as Florida, with 19 million residents and 12 million registered voters, the 67 county supervisors of elections strive to offer more options and greater convenience to boost voter turnout. By increasing voter opportunities, they also reduce the wait for those who prefer to vote on the traditional Election Day.

These constitutional officers are responsible for keeping accurate voter rolls and for protecting against the occurrence of voter fraud. Over the past few decades, voter fraud has been virtually nonexistent in Florida elections.

Yet under the guise of fighting this nonexistent voter fraud, numerous changes have been proposed to Florida’s election laws. Many of these provisions have had predictably bad results. In 2011, a massive election reform bill resulted in hours-long waits during a shortened early voting period and on Election Day, causing many prospective voters to give up.

However, some voters, angered by what they believed to be voter suppression, organized church members and others affected by this reduction in early-voting hours to show up to vote, no matter how long the wait, as a form of protest.

Embarrassed by the national attention and ridicule, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature partially undid some of the damage contained in the so-called reform bill. That was a small step in the right direction.

One change — requested by the voting experts, the supervisors of elections — was to increase the types of facilities that could be used for voting. Lawmakers expanded the list of early-voting sites to include government-owned community centers, convention centers, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums and fairgrounds.

But with the 2014 elections looming, it seems efforts are again under way to limit early voting. The Florida Division of Elections recently issued an opinion denying a request to use the University of Florida’s student union, the Reitz Union, as an early-voting location. As a Gator alumna, I’m particularly peeved at the state’s absurdity.

The University of Florida has a student population of 50,000 and a faculty of more than 4,000. Having a voting location on campus makes so much sense that the Reitz Union is actually one of Alachua County’s 63 Election Day polling locations.

That’s right; it’s OK to vote there on Election Day but not for early voting.

The Division of Elections does not seem embarrassed by this illogical distinction. The agency should reverse its advisory opinion immediately, before furthering the perception that its goal is to limit the voting rights of these students.

The Division of Elections falls under Secretary of State Ken Detzner, appointed by Scott. The division maintains that state statutes do not specifically allow educational facilities to be used as early-voting locations.

Instead of mincing words and erring on the side of restricting voting, the division should apply common sense to the students’ request to have their government-owned student union facility serve as an early-voting location. Any reasonable-minded person would have no trouble interpreting the statute to include the Reitz Union.

Since this seems to be a cause of consternation, Florida elections officials should recommend amending the statute to include student unions or higher education facilities in the list of allowable early-voting locations to benefit all of Florida’s college students. Election officials should apply some common sense and fairness to expanding rather than contracting voter rights.

Now is the time: The legislative session is about to begin.

But it might be too late. In seeking to discourage voting among independent-thinking college students, the division might have awakened a sleeping giant. Notoriously indifferent young voters might just have gotten the inspiration they need to cast their ballots.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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