Fabiola Santiago

Miami-Dade’s college campuses should have early voting sites like the rest of Florida

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.
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. Getty Images

There’s no good reason, none at all, for Miami-Dade’s major college campuses not to offer campus voting this fall.

Most of Florida’s public universities have announced that they will host early-voting sites in time for the November elections: the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University.

What’s strikingly missing from that top-colleges list?

The campuses from the state’s most populous and diverse county: Florida International University, Miami Dade College and the University of Miami.

Why?

There’s powerful political motivation in Miami-Dade County — a Democratic stronghold ruled by Republicans — to keep young people away from the polls.

This is a big year for students to make their mark in a way that counts, and Republicans fear that they’re mostly liberal voters.

After the horror of the Parkland school shooting in February, students began registering to vote in impressive numbers. They’re angry at the status quo, engaged and eager to make their voices heard.

On the other hand, Republican incumbents have serious Democratic opposition — some for the first time in decades — in virtually every race, and lately they’ve been on a losing streak in the county.

Polls show important races such as that between Gov. Rick Scott, a darling of Miami-Dade Republicans, and Senator Bill Nelson are even or very close. The governor’s race isn’t going too well for Trump-backed Republican Ron DeSantis against Democrat Andrew Gillum.

Any group of voters can decide these races. Question is, which one will show up to the polls?

Ever so ready to give his party and his friends a helping hand, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — a Republican in a supposedly non-partisan role — has so far refused requests to open early voting sites at MDC, FIU and UM.

This despite a court order by a federal judge on July 24 declaring unconstitutional a four-year state policy banning voting on campus. The ban was engendered by state Republicans and Scott with the sole purpose of making it difficult for college-age students, supposedly more liberal than conservative, to vote against their agenda and their candidates.

Gimenez isn’t swayed by the words of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who said that the refusal to allow college students the opportunity to vote on campus showed a “stark pattern of discrimination” by the state of Florida.

The court ruling, unfortunately, doesn’t force elections officials to open the early-voting sites, which is the only way to get them to do the right thing these days.

But organizations like the non-partisan League of Women Voters, which sued the state to end the ban, and even partisan groups like FIU College Republicans, aren’t giving up without a fight.

Open the early voting sites and let students’ voices be heard, they urged the mayor Thursday in front of County Hall.

campus voting presser cropped.jpg
Florida International University student Samantha Skhir urges Miami-Dade County to open an early-voting site on her campus in October as she speaks during a press conference outside of County Hall on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Behind her are other advocates for the early-voting site, from left: William Joel Bravo, of NextGen Florida; Andres Solorzano, president of FIU’s College Republicans chapter; Dan Horton, Florida state director of All Voting is Local; and Andrea Mercado, director of New Florida Majority. BY DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

Public outcry appeared to move Gimenez somewhat. His spokeswoman assured me he’s considering the issue.

“The recent federal ruling allows early voting on college campuses as an option,” Gimenez said in a statement. “We are looking into that possibility and will make a decision as we consider various scenarios that ensure accessibility for all.”

But he immediately added his justification not committing to it now, as he should: “As it stands, Miami-Dade County has the most early voting locations — 25 for the general election — than any other county in the state, and our public universities and colleges are predominantly commuter schools, with only 3,200 students living in campus housing at Florida International University. We have worked months in advance to ensure access to all voters, and have early voting locations as close as one-third of a mile to the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus to early voting sites that are 1-1/2 to 2 miles from FIU or the MDC Kendall area campus.”

This isn’t about where young people live. Or about there being other voting sites in a county of almost 3 million people.

It is precisely because students here must juggle work, school, and, for some, also parenthood, that the college early-voting location is necessary. Miami students endure longer commutes than most around the state to get to school. Why shouldn’t there be a polling place for them there? Because they might actually use it?

End the excuses, Mr. Mayor, and give young people the voice and right to vote they deserve.

It’s the right thing to do in a democracy.

Follow Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago
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