Youth voter turnout in Florida boosted by on-campus early voting sites, report says

Students, community reflect on early voting at MDC

Miami Dade College's north campus was added as an early voting site. Students, faculty, and elected officials cast their ballot on the first day of early voting after Miami Dade College and other groups fought for it to be opened.
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Miami Dade College's north campus was added as an early voting site. Students, faculty, and elected officials cast their ballot on the first day of early voting after Miami Dade College and other groups fought for it to be opened.

What caused a bump in voter turnout among young Floridians in 2018?

An expansion of early-voting sites on college campuses is one likely factor, according to a study funded by a liberal-leaning voter turnout group.

In Florida’s last midterm election, nearly 60,000 people cast early ballots at 12 on-campus polling places that were allowed after a July 2018 legal decision. The ruling struck down a ban on the campus voting sites that began under former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.

The study, written by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith and funded by the New Jersey-based Andrew Goodman Foundation, found that 56% of early voters at the campus sites were between 18 and 29. That’s a higher percentage than at non-campus early voting locations, where voters aged 18 to 29 made up less than 10% of the votes cast. The study was published Tuesday.

The data also show that turnout across the state in 2018 for voters up to age 29 increased over turnout in 2016, a presidential election year.

“What’s important to show in the report is that early in-person voting really did allow younger voters to have an opportunity to make their voice heard,” Smith said.

He cautioned, though, that the increased turnout in 2018 may be a “novelty effect” and campus turnout may fall as the excitement wears off.

The ruling that allowed the on-campus voting sites was in response to a lawsuit filed in the spring of 2018 by the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Andrew Goodman Foundation and individual student plaintiffs at UF. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that a 2014 decision by the Florida Division of Elections saying that on-campus buildings could not be used for early voting had incorrectly interpreted Florida’s early voting law.

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Two months ago, the plaintiffs asked Walker to consider an amended complaint to also address the provision in a new law recently signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which mandates that early voting sites “must provide sufficient non-permitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.”

The Andrew Goodman Foundation, the nonprofit that funded the study, is a plaintiff in the case.

Smith, the author of the study and an expert witness in the federal case, said young voters may also have a lack of trust in the vote-by-mail ballot process, which could have led to larger in-person turnout at early voting locations conveniently located on college campuses.

In 2018, thousands of Floridians who voted by mail told stories of ballots that were never received or ballots that sat at sorting facilities and were never tabulated.

According to a study Smith authored for the ACLU in September 2018, he also found that mail ballots cast by young voters, blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to be rejected by supervisors of elections than mail ballots cast by white voters.

“If I was a young voter, I would not trust my absentee ballot to be counted fairly,” Smith said. “To have the ability to vote in person, before the election, is a really good way to assure that your voice is going to be heard. It’s the safest mode of voting so why not allow the younger voters the chance to cast a ballot where they live?”

The campuses with early voting locations were the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, University of North Florida, Edward Waters College, University of West Florida, University of South Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, Florida International University, Miami Dade College’s North and Kendall campuses, University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.

And on some of those campuses after the new sites were established, voter turnout groups popped up to register young voters for the 2018 midterms.

Left-leaning political action committee NextGen America, for example, registered more than 50,000 young people across the state and poured $9.7 million into campaign ads. The liberal group was founded by billionaire and presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

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It’s not just progressive groups looking to turn out the vote on campuses, either.

In the spring, conservative youth organization Turning Point USA says it registered more than 1,000 new voters in Florida in just 30 days.

“Republicans, Democrats and [independents] alike used the on-campus voting locations, just like they do at any other location,” Smith pointed out. “Just because you have a higher concentration of younger voters who tend to be more aligned with the Democratic Party should not be a question about making voting convenient.”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.