Florida lawmakers are on the verge of enacting a measure that would require election officials to determine early voting sites have a “sufficient” amount of accessible parking, a move civil rights groups say will make it harder to vote early on college campuses.
The provision requires a supervisor of election to ensure any early voting location has “sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.” The measure passed the Florida legislature last month as part of a bill with a number of election changes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has indicated he will sign it.
As the 2020 election approaches, measures that could affect voter turnout are likely to draw tough scrutiny. Republicans narrowly won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate last year and Florida is considered a critical swing state in presidential elections.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), who introduced the provision, said he believed the measure was necessary after reading stories of long lines at the polls and people who couldn’t find a place to park. But civil rights groups say the provision is aimed at college campuses, which often require permits to park on campus or have limited space.
“This is not about parking,” said Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “Those students with cars, they can hop in their car and go to an early voting site off campus. This about those students living on campus, who don’t have a car and they want to vote early.”
Baxley denied the measure was at all targeted towards college campuses or intended to make it more difficult for anyone to vote.
“I just think it’s reasonable that if you want to have a voting location, you need a certain amount of square footage. You need a certain amount of visibility. You need to have somewhere they can park to get there,” he told HuffPost.
Baxley said the local supervisors of election would have discretion to determine how much parking in a particular area was “sufficient.” He declined to say whether it would be acceptable for election officials to move an early voting location from a central location to a less convenient place to accommodate more parking.
“I really hadn’t thought about the different ways they might approach it,” he said. “Location is one thing that you’re looking at. But the other thing is access. And if there’s no parking, there’s no access for many people.”
Last year, the League of Women Voters, the Andrew Goodman Foundation and a handful of students at the University of Florida successfully sued the state in federal court to allow early voting in state-owned campus buildings. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote that the state’s reasons for blocking early voting in campus buildings ― which included concerns about parking ― were not sufficient. 7,899 people voted early on campus at the University of Florida in 2018 making it the third most popular voting site in Alachua County, where the school is located. Statewide, 57,639 people voted early at sites on public university campuses, according to lawyers for plaintiffs in the case.
In a filing earlier this week, the plaintiffs in the case said the new parking requirement was “aimed with laser-like precision” at undoing Walker’s order allowing early voting on college campuses. Noting supervisors of election could face financial penalty if they failed to adhere to Florida law, lawyers argued the officials had an incentive not to offer early voting at places where parking could be tight.
The Priorities USA Foundation, the non-profit arm of a Democratic super PAC that backed the lawsuit last year, said Friday it would sue Florida over the measure should DeSantis sign it into law.
Parking issues weren’t a problem during early voting in the 2018 election, said TJ Pyche, a spokesman for Kim Barton, the Alachua County supervisor of election. He said Barton’s office had worked out an agreement with the University of Florida to provide parking for voters.
“We’ll continue to work closely with the University to make sure that we can have that spot that was successful during the 2018 election cycle,” he said. “It’s not something that’s gonna impact how we go about selecting that site and preparing that site.”
The Florida association of supervisors of election didn’t request the provision, said Paul Lux, who just completed his term as the group’s president.
“This is definitely nothing the supervisors asked for. It is something that we advised against. At the end of the day, we don’t get to write the law,” he said.
The provision is contained in the same bill that will require Floridians with felony convictions to repay all fines and fees ordered by a court before they can vote again. Civil rights groups say that requirement is akin to a poll tax and violates a constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly passed last year.