A leader of the College Republicans group, liberal organizations and others are demanding Miami-Dade bring early voting to college campuses, calling out Florida’s most populous county for not acting after a judge struck down a state ban on campus early-voting sites.
“I can remember juggling jobs, children and classes” to vote as a college student, said Sharon Van Smith, a leader of Rise Up Florida, a group that supports candidates and causes backed by the Democratic Party. “Having access to early voting will help everyone to participate.”
She spoke at a press conference that included Andres Solorzano, president of the College Republicans group at Florida International University.
“This should be a nonpartisan issue. ... More Americans should be encouraged to vote,” said Solorzano, a 19-year-old sophomore. “There are Republicans and Democrats at FIU who would like to speak their voice. But we’re preoccupied with classes. We’re preoccupied with tests.”
Speakers at a late-morning press conference urged Miami-Dade to consider early voting sites at FIU, Miami Dade College and University of Miami. It unfolded outside County Hall, home to the 29th floor offices of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan office who oversees the Elections Department. That agency has declined to approve a campus early-voting site after the July 24 decision by a federal judge declaring unconstitutional a 4-year-old state policy banning them. The ruling doesn’t require early-voting sites at schools, and Miami-Dade has so far declined to expand its list of 25 early-voting facilities, which open Oct. 22.
“The Miami-Dade County Elections Department has already confirmed its early voting sites, since preparations began well in advance,” said Suzy Trutie, spokeswoman for the Elections Department. But in a statement, Gimenez left open the possibility of adding campus early voting in the coming weeks.
“The recent federal ruling allows early voting on college campuses as an option,” he said. “We are looking into that possibility and will make a decision as we consider various scenarios that ensure accessibility for all.” The statement noted Miami-Dade already has the most early-voting locations in the state. It also pointed out that most of Miami-Dade’s large campuses are commuter schools with students who likely live closer to early-voting sites elsewhere in the county.
On Friday, election officials toured FIU’s western to discuss the possibility of having early voting there. Miami-Dade is also looking at early voting at Miami-Dade College in Miami, according to CBS4. Also Friday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez wrote a letter to the county’s Elections Department urging them to bring early voting to MDC. “It is my sincere hope you will reconsider your decision,” Suarez wrote to Christina White, an Gimenez appointee and the county’s elections supervisor. //
Since the July court decision, Orange County approved an early-voting site for the University of Central Florida in August. Hillsborough County approved one for the University of South Florida in Tampa at roughly the same time, as did Leon County for Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Miami-Dade has the largest Florida campuses that aren’t slated to have early voting in the fall. Miami Dade College vies with the University of Central Florida for the largest enrollment in the state, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. FIU, with the second-largest enrollment in Florida’s state system, was an early-voting site in Miami-Dade in 2014, before Florida’s State Department issued a policy change that eliminated campuses from consideration for countywide polling places.
Shortly after the court decision, Miami Dade College asked the county to bring early voting to at least one of its eight campuses. But the school wasn’t added to the list of early-voting sites, a decision MDC President Eduardo Padrón challenged in an Aug. 16 letter to White. “I was surprised your office did not welcome the opportunity to add more voting locations for Miami-Dade County residents,” Padrón wrote. “I write today to urge you to reconsider.”
The two weeks of early voting allow voters to cast ballots in person at any polling site within their home counties, requiring larger facilities than the hundreds of precinct sites that open on Election Day to serve individual neighborhoods.
In 2014, FIU’s early-voting site in its football stadium ended up being among the least popular in the county. Of the 25 early-voting sites that opened that fall, FIU finished fourth from last in terms of participation, with 2,276 votes cast. But advocates say there’s more demand from college-age voters in 2018, citing increased participation after the February shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“We’re not in 2014. We’re in 2018,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, an advocacy group backing Democrat Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial run. “Out of 4,000 people that New Florida Majority turned out to vote [early in the August primaries], only 13 of them had voted in the 2014 primary.”
The county has set up a polling place on FIU’s western campus on Election Day in past years, but Trutie said the school withdrew permission for that in 2018. An FIU spokeswoman on Thursday said the space on in the stadium used for Election Day voting in the past is no longer available.
Miami-Dade does plan to have early-voting available fairly close to FIU’s main campus in Western Miami-Dade. The West Dade Regional Library is less than two miles away from FIU, and is one of the most popular early-voting sites in the county. But advocates for early voting on campus say the unique elements of student life make nearby sites less attractive than they would be to ordinary voters.
“We have busy lives,” said Samantha Skhir✓, a pre-med student at FIU who identified herself as a Republican during the downtown Miami press conference. “In fact, I actually have an exam scheduled in less than an hour.”
This article was updated to correct the name of the organization represented by Dan Horton, who appeared in the background of a photo accompanying the story.