News Service of Florida and Steve Newborn
Part of a new elections law that requires “sufficient nonpermitted parking” at early voting sites will create an unconstitutional burden on young voters attending colleges or universities, plaintiffs in a long-running dispute over campus early voting argued in documents filed Monday.
The parking requirement was tucked into a sweeping elections package during the waning days of the legislative session in early May. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the package (SB 7066), and the new law went into effect on July 1.
The dispute over the parking requirement is the latest focus in a lawsuit against the state from the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Andrew Goodman Foundation and a handful of students.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2018 in federal court, originally focused on an interpretation of the state’s election laws by former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which decided that certain campus buildings did not meet statutory guidelines for early voting sites.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in July 2018 ruled that the interpretation was unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction allowing campus early voting locations.
In the November elections, that resulted in early voting on 11 campuses, with about 60,000 ballots cast, according to court records.
Plaintiffs on Monday asked Walker to consider an amended complaint to also address the provision in the new law, which mandates that early voting sites “must provide sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.”
The provision was added to the elections package by two Republican lawmakers “as a never-before-seen, eleventh-hour amendment” in the waning days of the session, plaintiffs argued in the 107-page amended complaint.
One of the plaintiffs in that case is Washington, D.C. based Democrat-aligned advocacy group Priorities USA Foundation. Josh Schwerin is with the Foundation.
"So this is really just an attempt to - not on the merits of partking - but an attempt to find a reason to make it harder for people to vote. And that's why we're challenging this in court," he said.
Research indicates the majority of college students tend to vote Democratic, but Schwerin said his Foundation is more interested in encouraging young people to get involved in the democratic process early on.
"Making it easy, making it more accessible, helps people build that practice of participating in elections that they'll carry on throughout their lives," he said. "So we need to start this early, and it's up to us to help protect that right and to encourage people to get involved in the democratic process early on. Not make it harder, like Florida is currently trying to do."
Schwerin noted that during the last presidential election, many college campuses - such as the University of South Florida in Tampa - waived parking rules, allowing early voting to be held.
The parking requirement mirrors the justification former Secretary of State Ken Detzner gave in a 2014 directive, “in what can only be logically explained as an attempt to avoid this court’s preliminary injunction order and reverse the access to early voting for tens of thousands of young voters that followed as a direct result,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.
“The permitted parking prohibition provides a new means of suppressing the vote of young voters,” they added.
After Walker’s preliminary injunction and early voting on campuses in November, new Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who was appointed to her job by DeSantis, argued that the case was moot and should be dismissed.
Attorneys for Lee cited a directive she issued after becoming secretary that, they wrote, “addresses the plaintiffs’ concerns head-on and provides a further safeguard.”
“In it, the secretary specifically states that supervisors may place early voting sites on college or university campuses under the plain text of … the state’s early voting statute,” Lee’s attorneys wrote in February, prior to the passage of the new law. “Thus, with or without this court’s earlier published decision, the most recent directive makes clear that the secretary has no intention to revert to an improper position alleged to have placed an undue burden on the plaintiffs’ right to vote.”
Walker, however, issued a ruling in April that rejected the state’s arguments that the case was moot.
In Monday’s amended complaint, the plaintiffs argued that the parking requirement was “enacted with the intent, at least in part, to suppress the vote of young voters in Florida.”
“The permitted parking prohibition discourages and in some cases effectively prohibits on-campus early voting in communities that voters disproportionately access on foot, on public transit, or through cars with parking permits,” the plaintiffs argued.
The “intended effect of both the secretary’s persistent obfuscation of when and where early voting may be offered on campus and the adoption of the permitted parking prohibition was to make it more difficult for young voters to cast early ballots,” the complaint alleges.
The efforts “to particularly burden young voters are animated by a belief that doing so will assist in gaining or maintaining a partisan electoral advantage,” the plaintiffs argued.
The parking requirement also will have a negative impact on early voting sites in urban areas where parking is scarce, the lawyers argued.
The parking provision “will effectively prohibit the use of early voting sites in densely populated commercial and residential areas that voters disproportionately access on foot, on public transit, or through cars with parking permits,” including college and university campuses, the complaint reads.
The judge gave the state 14 days after the amended complaint was filed to respond.