State officials have denied a request made by students to open up an early voting site at the University of Florida's campus. (Photo by Natures Paparazzi)

State officials have denied a request made by students to open up an early voting site at the University of Florida’s campus. (Photo by Natures Paparazzi)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration shut down an attempt to open an early voting site at the University of Florida.

The decision has sparked outrage from voting rights group, which only recently convinced the Florida Legislature to increase early voting sites around the state, as well as Democrats and local election officials.

According to The Tampa Bay Times/ Miami Herald:

After years of complaints by supervisors who struggled with historically long lines at the polls in 2012, lawmakers last year expanded the list of early voting sites to include fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers and government-owned community centers.

But when the city of Gainesville — which is heavily Democratic — asked if it could use the University of Florida student union for early voting in next month’s municipal elections, the state said no.

The Reitz Union is a structure designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution,” says an advisory opinion from Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, which is run by a Scott appointee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “The terms ‘convention center’ and ‘government-owned community center’ cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union.”

The opinion noted that the 2013 Legislature rejected an amendment that would have further expanded the definition of early voting sites to include “educational facilities.”

“I’m very upset about this,” said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, president of a statewide supervisors’ group. “I just can’t understand why they feel the need to be so restrictive about where people are allowed to vote … This is strategic. They’re worried about young people voting.”

Students at UF had prompted the request to open an early voting site at the state university.

The League of Women Voters, which has been battling with Scott’s administration over voting rights on several fronts since 2011, released a statement criticizing the decision.

According to the Times/Herald, the group’s president Deirdre Macnab said it is “jaw dropping to consider that we wouldn’t open up the student union, the student library and other buildings on campus to make it easier for our leaders of tomorrow to start their civic duty of voting.”

“One can only be left with the impression that the Florida Legislature, Governor and Secretary of State would frankly prefer to discourage student participation,” she said to the Times/Herald.

The League previously sued the state over another policy that had created a barrier to voting for students.

In 2011, the Florida Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. Scott, that cut early voting days and made it harder for third party groups like the League and Rock The Vote to register people to vote. This latter was particularly prohibitive to students.

They eventually won the lawsuit and a court halted enforcement of that part of the law right before the 2012 presidential election.

This latest voting fight comes about eight months before the state holds a gubernatorial election.

The News Service of Florida reports Democrats in the Legislature are also getting involved.

Democrats contend Gov. Rick Scott is “laying roadblocks to voting” because of a state Division of Elections opinion that the student union at the University of Florida can’t be used as an early voting location.

Meanwhile, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said Friday his group will determine if a challenge is possible to “this attack on the voting rights” of students.

…Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, claimed Friday that the state elections official misinterpreted the Legislature’s attempt to avoid repeating 2012 election problems when she ruled that the Reitz Union doesn’t fit the definition of “government-owned community center” or “convention center” for use as an early voting location.

“The Reitz Union is government-owned, as the University of Florida is a public institution founded and funded by the state of Florida,” Clemens wrote to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott-appointee. “The Reitz Union is also a community center, obviously. There is no ambiguity in the statute, nor is there any in the public nature or purpose of the Reitz Union. The statute is crystal clear, straightforward and with no room for misinterpretation.”

Not surprisingly, one of Scott’s Democratic challengers for the upcoming election has also spoken out.

Charlie Crist, who is a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said he would be meeting with UF students.

According to The Miami Herald,

Criticizing the state’s decision to block the University of Florida’s student union as an early voting site, Charlie Crist posted a Facebook notice Friday stating he’ll meet with students and voters at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday at Turlington Plaza to discuss the issue.

The posting follows a tweet from the Democratic candidate at 6:15 p.m. Thursday:  “This is an outrage,” Crist tweeted. “Stay tuned on how we can protest Rick Scott’s awful insult to every student & voter in the state.”

To address complaints of long waits at polling sites in 2012 that attracted national attention, legislators last year expanded the list of early voting sites to include fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers and government-owned community centers.

According to the News Service of Florida, a spokeswoman for Detzner has responded to the pushback by saying the “opinion speaks for itself.”

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