State Senator Jeff Clemens, the Lake Worth Democrat who represents the 27th District and sits on the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections, today slammed the state Division of Elections decision to prohibit use of the University of Florida's Reitz Student Union building as an early voting site in upcoming elections.
After Florida's infamous 2012 elections featured huge lines and long waits to vote, the state legislature passed a law last year broadening voting site options to include government-owned community centers, convention centers, county commission buildings and other publicly owned venues.
As reported in yesterday's Miami Herald, this new controversy comes after a group of UF students asked the city of Gainesville to request an on-campus early voting site in one of the public university's publicly owned buildings.
But the state turned down the students' and city's request, with Division of Elections director Maria Matthews explaining it this way:
The Reitz Union is a structure designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution ...The terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union."
In a letter published on his facebook page today after being sent to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the Gov. Scott appointee in charge of the Division of Elections, Sen. Clemens challenges the legality of the decision:
I write you to express my concern with a misinterpretation of statute from a bill that passed through the Florida legislature last session, as it relates to voting at community centers.
The bill we passed, which later was signed into law by the governor, was very clear in stating that a "government-owned community center" is an acceptable location for early voting...
The Reitz Union is government-owned, as the University of Florida is a public insitution founded and funded by the state of Florida. 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.
As a member of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee that formulated this bill, I ask that you immediately re-evaluate your unlawful decision to not allow voting at the Reitz Union..."
Sen. Clemens has plenty of company in protesting what appears to many to be a thinly veiled, hyper-partisan voter suppression ploy.
Lori Edwards, the Polk County Elections Supervisor (a non-partisan office) responsible for Gainesville, and president of a statewide Elections Supervisors group, had this to say:
I'm very upset about this. 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."
Leading advocacy organization Progress Florida has also taken up the cause of organizing public pressure on Gov. Scott to reverse the Division of Elections decision.
Following the 2012 fiasco and coming hot on the heels of a widely panned new plan by Gov, Scott to purge traditionally Democratic-leaning voters from county lists of eligible voters, this seems to some a risky move for the state GOP, in an important midterm election year.
The risk is that they'll be more clearly seen by steadily increasing numbers of Floridians as engaging in a protracted effort to suppress votes and subvert the integrity of the state's electoral process.
What impact that has on the governor's reelection bid, or on the electoral hopes of Republican legislators supportive of such tactics, remains to be seen later this year...at a polling place not necessarily near you.