UF students join bid for early voting site on campus
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 23, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.
In the final days before the 2012 November election, about 2,000 University of Florida students piled into strangers' cars.
2012 general election data early voting data
Millhopper Branch Library - 15, 597 voters
Tower Road Branch Library - 12,073 voters
Alachua County Administration Building - 11,602 voters
Their destination? An early-voting site.
Nearly a year later, Christina Ford, who helped coordinate those rides, joined about 20 other students on another political initiative: Creating at least two more locations for early voting in Gainesville, particularly one on the UF campus.
The 21-year-old political science and economics junior was at a Gainesville city committee on Aug. 29 to support a motion by City Commissioner Randy Wells, who had been approached by several UF students requesting a site.
Ford said the number of students she and her friends hauled to voting booths in the presidential election showed that students are interested in elections and deserve a closer location.
"Gainesville would not be what it is without the students," Ford said.
But the question is: Will students will go to the polls for races that do not involve the presidency?
Turnout at the Reitz Union precinct was 6.73 percent for the March 2012 city election, in which UF student Alfredo Espinosa was on the ballot for a City Commission seat.
For the the April runoff election, 90 votes were cast at the Reitz, only 1.58 percent of registered voters.
City elections occur every spring, while Alachua County, state and federal elections - when the bulk of students vote - fall on even-numbered years.
A charter amendment to change the city election schedule failed in March, but charter review efforts underway may ask voters once more to move the election dates.
But Ford said that students are showing more of an interest in politics, if her experience during the November election is any indication.
Citing her involvement with the now-disbanded Gators for Obama organization, Ford said hundreds of students, regardless of partisanship, hitched rides from campus to the Alachua County Administration Building and back during the early voting period and on election day in 2012.
“We're not professionals, and we don't have cars necessarily to drive us where we need to vote,” she said.
UF student Jose Castaneda, who was interning with former Mayor Craig Lowe's re-election campaign, was among those who went to the only early voting site for city elections, the Alachua County Administration Building, 12 SE First St.
Castaneda, a 20-year-old political science student who conducts voting research, said he supports an on-campus early voting site.
“I don't see how it can ever be bad to expand the franchise,” he said. “If anything, I think it would just give more credibility to the elections.”
The problem, he said, is generating student interest because “many of us don't have a long-term investment in Gainesville.”
“I think people are more interested when they are stable in a community,” Castaneda said.
Stability is a factor for Nayara Estrada, a public relations and dance freshman at UF. Estrada, who just turned 18, had her voter registration mailed to her hometown, Miami. Estrada said she still doesn't see Gainesville as her city.
“I don't even know who the mayor is. It's pretty bad,” she said.
Part of the problem with an on-campus site would be finding an appropriate location. In accordance with Florida Statutes, early-voting sites must be equally accessible to everyone, which rules out the libraries on campus because they are not open to the public.
This leaves places such as the Reitz Union and the Phillips Center as possible sites, where parking issues also raise accessibility concerns.
The city committee is also considering whether to set up an additional site elsewhere in city. Options include places already used for voting such as Millhopper and Tower Road branch libraries.
Commissioner Todd Chase said a site at Millhopper Branch Library “seems like a perfect and fair solution.”
“The key takeaway is that we have one early voting site that serves from a proximity standpoint (Districts) 1 and 4 and none that serve Districts 2 and 3,” Chase said.
District 1, located in the east, borders District 2 in the north and District 4, which lies in the middle. The Alachua County Administration Building is downtown near the boundaries of Districts 1 and 4.
District 3, located in the southwest, borders Districts 2 and 4.
The Millhopper site, at 3145 NW 43rd St., is within District 2. It was the busiest early voting site during the 2012 general election, followed by Tower Road Branch Library and the Alachua County Administration Building.
At an upcoming meeting, commissioners will discuss cost and legal information gathered for both the proposed UF site and an additional site within the city. Commission Clerk Kurt Lannon said the estimated cost will be in the thousands. The entire cost for running the elections each year, including the runoff and early voting, is about $200,000.
However, Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said a possible amendment to the city charter could help. The amendment, only an item for discussion at the moment, would place city elections in the fall of even years, coinciding with general elections.
Because the Millhopper Branch Library already holds early voting in general elections, city elections would follow suit.
“We will have all the benefits of the general, including early votes and increased turnout,” Hawkins said.