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Under pressure, Miami-Dade mayor approves early voting for one large college campus

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, that Florida International University’s main campus off Southwest Eighth Street would get the county’s 26th early voting location.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, that Florida International University’s main campus off Southwest Eighth Street would get the county’s 26th early voting location. sballestas@miamiherald.com

Florida International University’s main campus in western Miami-Dade will have early voting next month but Miami Dade College will not under a county plan announced Wednesday after sustained criticism by groups wanting it to be easier for students to vote ahead of Election Day.

“I am firmly committed to making voting accessible to all,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican in a non-partisan post, said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “Miami-Dade County has historically provided the maximum allowable early voting locations and hours. We will continue to provide that opportunity to all of our voters in a professional and non-partisan manner.”

Other large counties expanded early voting to large campuses after a July ruling that struck down a 2014 state policy that disqualified colleges and universities from early-voting facilities. Miami-Dade initially said the decision came too late to consider changes for its November lineup of 25 early-voting sites. That prompted a fight with a coalition of left-leaning groups like New Florida Majority and Next Gen and civic organizations like the League of Women Voters.

The night before the mayor’s announcement, the head of Miami-Dade’s Republican Party urged the county not to expand early voting to college campuses unless the expansion included new sites near senior centers.

The groups pressing Miami-Dade to reverse course on campus early voting cheered Gimenez’s decision. “BOOM!” tweeted Dan Horton, state director for All Voting is Local. “This is a huge win for Miami-Dade County.” Florida’s ACLU office posted a similar message of thanks to Gimenez and his elections supervisor, Christina White, for “increasing access to the ballot box.”

Miami Dade College has a slightly larger fall enrollment than FIU does, but both hovered around 55,000 in 2016, according to the most recent statistics published by the federal Department of Education. While FIU had not requested an early-voting site, MDC President Eduardo Padrón pressed the county for at least one after the July 24 decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee. On Wednesday, the school issued a statement criticizing Gimenez, who had attended MDC before earning a degree from Barry University.

“We are very disappointed that Miami-Dade County’s Mayor, [an] MDC alumnus, has decided against designating an MDC campus as an early voting site,” the school said. “Even more disappointed are our students.”

In an interview, Gimenez said he was not aware of the court decision striking down the state ban until about a week and a half ago as the push for a campus site was attracting more attention in Miami-Dade. He said he based his decision on two factors: FIU has some students living on campus while MDC does not, and FIU was used as an early-voting site in 2014, before Florida changed the rules under Gov. Rick Scott to bar universities and colleges from being used during early voting.

“I said, ‘OK, in order to be fair, let’s put it back,’ ” Gimenez said. He described the pressure campaign for campus early voting in Miami-Dade as largely the product of groups aligned with Democrats. “It appears that everybody who is saying it publicly and pushing for it is on one side of the political spectrum,” he said. “But this is an issue for me of fairness. I have to be as non-partisan as possible.”

Patti Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, the civic group that sued to overturn the campus early-voting ban, issued a mixed victory statement after Gimenez’s announcement.

“It’s truly a shame MDC is not going to have a site,” she said. “We congratulate the mayor for listening to the students and providing early voting on the FIU campus.”

Daniella Levine Cava, a Miami-Dade commissioner and Democrat, issued a statement after Gimenez’s announcement saying MDC should have early voting too, calling the FIU site “small progress.”

Miami-Dade estimates the new early-voting site will cost about $175,000 to operate during the two weeks of early voting. Early voting starts Oct. 22, and the polling places can be used by any voter in the county. The one that will open at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique campus will be housed at the Student Access and Success Center, and be available to all voters, as well. After the two weeks of early voting ends Nov. 4, in-person balloting is limited to a voter’s assigned polling place on Election Day, Nov. 6.

In his statement, Gimenez said he’s also instructing the Elections Department to expand voter outreach efforts to “various college campuses” as well as “community events serving all of our residents.”

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