[Image via oneclass]

Yesterday, a federal judge temporarily blocked a Florida rule prohibiting the use of on-campus buildings at public universities for early voting. Steve Bousquet of the Tampa Bay Times has more:

Gov. Rick Scott’s elections officials showed “a stark pattern of discrimination” in blocking early voting at state college and university campuses, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. [The opinion is here.]

The decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is yet another voting rights defeat for the Republican governor, and could yet emerge as an issue in his campaign to unseat three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Walker issued a preliminary injunction that directs Scott’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, to tell all 67 counties that they can use campus buildings for early voting this fall. Detzner has until Friday to tell the judge he will obey.

Walker ruled that a 2014 state opinion that banned early voting on campus violates three amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Simply put, (the state) opinion reveals a stark pattern of discrimination,” Judge Walker wrote. “It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than on all other voters. (The state’s) stated interests for the opinion (following state law, avoiding parking issues, and minimizing on-campus disruption) reek of pretext.”

Read the controversial [2014] opinion here.

Walker in effect expanded the definition of early voting sites, adding “any such site as may be related to, designed for, affiliated with or part of a college or university.”

His 40-page decision said the state’s policy had the effect of creating “a secondary class of voters” — college students — who can’t vote early in locations where they work, study and live.

“Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest,” Walker wrote. “Abridging voting rights never does.”

The judge’s order, five weeks before a statewide primary election, is sure to prompt some counties to shuffle their list of early voting sites to include on campus buildings that up to now have been prohibited.

At issue was whether or not campus buildings at a public university met the requirements of a “government-owned” facility for purposes of the law:

Five years ago, the Florida Legislature passed and Scott signed a law that expanded early voting hours and sites. The action was in response to the curtailment of early voting a year earlier in 2012, when President Barack Obama was seeking re-election.

The 2012 law brought widespread denunciations from Democrats and voter advocacy groups who accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote in 2012.

The 2013 law expanded the definition of early voting sites to include “government-owned community centers.”

But when the city of Gainesville asked the state in January 2014 if that definition covered the J. Wayne Reitz Student Union building on the UF campus, the state said no, for one reason: that is was “designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution.”

But that interpretation defied logic, Walker reasoned, because the 2013 law allowed early voting at stadiums and libraries — both of which exist on the UF campus.

Saying “[t]his Court is not the Early-Voting Czar,” (p. 38)  Walker did note that his opinion does not require counties to use campus buildings, but they are no longer prohibited from doing so. Local officials say it is likely too late for the upcoming primary but that they’ll take a look at universities for the November general – to the delight of plaintiffs and other opponents of the existing policy:

The judge noted the growing popularity of early voting in the nation’s  third-largest state and that nearly 830,000 students were enrolled at state colleges and universities in 2016, that more than a fourth of the people who voted in 2016 were under age 30, and that early voting is especially popular among college students.

Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton said she will reach out to UF to consider early options for the November general election, but it is too late to shift early voting sites for the Aug. 28 primary.

Barton said her duty is “to provide all Alachua County voters equal access to early voting.”

Six current or former students at UF and Florida State brought the lawsuit, backed by the Andrew Goodman Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“This is truly a victory for the citizens of Florida, especially with so many young people motivated to vote,” said League of Women Voters President Patricia Brigham. “This is the right decision, at the right time, for our democratic process … We especially congratulate the students who raised their voices for a fair democracy. These young leaders are a positive example to us all.”

The invaluable Rick Hasen of UC-Irvine notes at Election Law Blog that the case is potentially ground-breaking in its use of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (18-year-old voting) and as such could not only affect laws in other states but also eventually draw in the U.S. Supreme Court:

[T]he court also applied a Twenty-Sixth Amendment  analysis, finding that the Secretary of State’s opinion barring college campus locations as early voting sites was pretexual discrimination in voting on  the basis of age.

I think we are likely to see this 26th Amendment analysis percolate in the lower courts, and potentially end up before the Supreme Court in the next few years (either in this case or another).

Youth voting is increasingly an issue; recent fights in New Hampshire over residency requirements and North Carolina over early voting locations indicate that policies affecting young voters – especially students – are becoming more prevalent. If the Twenty-Sixth Amendment becomes a new weapon for plaintiffs, those policies and others could increasingly come under scrutiny. It’s a significant development that could reshape state and local election policy for years to come. Stay tuned …