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‘Stark pattern of discrimination’: Judge makes it easier for college students to vote

Voters came to a polling station in Miami-Dade County in October 2016 on the first day of early voting in that year’s general election. A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a state law barring early voting centers on college campuses was unconstitutional. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

A federal judge is making it easier for college students to vote in Florida, ruling this week that a provision barring early voting centers from university campuses is unconstitutional and intentionally discriminatory.

The ruling sets an important precedent nationally, two legal scholars said, by invoking the 26th Amendment, which prohibits the government from using age as a reason to deny the right to vote for anyone 18 or older. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote that an opinion from the office of Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner “reveals a stark pattern of discrimination” because it so directly bears on young voters, comparing it to past efforts to limit voters based on their race.

“It’s a really exciting case,” said Jenny Diamond Cheng, a lecturer in law at Vanderbilt University Law School. “It’s an important precedent. . . . What’s new is that here the court actually found that the Florida policy was in fact intended to make it harder for college students to vote,” and struck it down on those lines. “He didn’t mince words,” she added.

Walker wrote that the justifications given were ham-handed.

The judge saw a severe burden imposed by the secretary of state’s opinion — not the mere inconvenience of students having to take a bus or reschedule plans to vote. He argued it created a secondary class of citizens. Early voting may be a convenience, he wrote, but constitutional problems arise when conveniences are available for some groups of people but blocked for others.

The ruling does not impose early voting centers on public campuses, but “removes the handcuffs” from election officials, Walker wrote, allowing them discretion in setting sites at public universities.

“This is the beginning of a much longer conversation around this amendment and around youth democracy,” said Yael Bromberg, the supervising attorney and clinical teaching fellow at Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic and Voting Rights Institute. Bromberg, whose scholarly research is focused on the 26th Amendment, predicted there will be more legal challenges leading up to and following this year’s elections that draw upon the amendment to challenge voting restrictions.

Tuesday’s ruling could have immediate implications for the 2018 election in Florida, with Gov. Rick Scott (R) challenging Sen. Bill Nelson, a three-term Democratic senator.

On social media, Nelson welcomed the ruling.

“Governor Scott is proud to have signed the largest expansion of early voting in the state’s history,” Ashley Cook, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email Wednesday. “We will review this ruling.”

A spokeswoman for Florida’s secretary of state, who has been ordered to file a notice of compliance by Friday, referred questions to the governor’s office.

After long lines marred the 2012 election in Florida, a law was passed the following year expanding the types of sites that could be used as early voting centers.

University of Florida students asked Gainesville officials to add a center at the student union on campus. But when city officials asked if that was allowed under law, a state official responded that university buildings could not be used for early voting.

Six current and former students, along with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, the Priorities USA Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Florida, challenged the secretary of state. One of them, Megan Newsome, had trouble getting to polling places in past elections; she asked for rides from friends at the University of Florida, and one year took a cab both ways. Another year, she organized a shuttle for students wanting to vote early, and heard from many that they wished the shuttle had been able to run more than one day.

“It’s incredibly important, I believe,” said Newsome, who graduated in December and is a researcher in the physics department at the university. “I’m really excited and hopeful going forward.”

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, welcomed the decision, which comes at a time of surging interest in voting among young people in Florida after the school shooting in Parkland galvanized student activists. “We should be making it easier to vote, not harder,” she said.

Almost 1 million people lived, studied and worked on public college campuses in Florida, as of 2016, Walker noted in the ruling, and early voting is especially popular among college students. But younger voters are less likely to vote than older people. Throwing up roadblocks, he wrote, “does not remotely serve the public interest.”

” . . . Voting is the beating heart of democracy,” Walker wrote.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower talked about the importance of encouraging young people to vote as a means of protecting our democracy in the 1950s, Bromberg said. It was President Richard M. Nixon who ultimately ratified the amendment — which received unanimous Senate support, nearly unanimous support from the House and from 38 ratifying states.

“It’s something we’ve forgotten in our national rhetoric, something we need to reclaim,” Bromberg said. In a polarized time, “this amendment, and the spirit behind the amendment, is beyond partisanship.”