Alachua County — home to the city of Gainesville, the University of Florida, and currently myself — had only three early voting locations during the 2016 general election. In contrast, my hometown of Jacksonville had eighteen. I was unsure which case was more “normal.” So, I ran the data.
Using public data, I found the number of registered voters for every county in Florida at the time of the 2016 general election. I then tallied the number of early voting locations every county had for the same election. I used these two data points to calculate how many people were being served per early voting site for each county.
Alachua’s ratio of registered voters to number of early voting sites was 50,316, meaning every early voting site “corresponded” to over 50,000 voters. For St. Johns County, which had nearly as many registered voters as Alachua, that number was 24,743. Clay County also had comparable registration numbers, and their population per site was 24,440. Leon County? 29,476. Marion? 25,649. Even relatively large counties fared better, with Duval serving 32,673 per site, and Orange 45,675.
If you rank these ratios from highest to lowest, Alachua was #4 among 67, doing better than only Pinellas, Volusia, and Palm Beach.
Fortunately, this is not a hit-piece on Alachua County — Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton addressed these needs in August of 2017, when she secured funding with the County Commission for two additional early voting sites. These new sites will primarily serve the outskirts of the county.
Alachua County ranked 42nd in early voting turnout in Florida, 41st in overall turnout. We can only hope that the additional sites will help these rates increase by providing greater ballot access to voters outside of the city of Gainesville. With these changes, we are only steps away from making voting more accessible to students at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College by getting early voting sites on college campuses, too.
The data shows potential for increased voter turnout simply by increasing the number of early voting sites. Among counties that had 60,000 or more registered voters, there was high correlation between the number of voters served per early voting site and the subsequent early voting turnout. There is noticeable scatter around lower ratios with regard to their turnout, but the trend remains clear, and this is without even assessing the specific locations of sites within each county. I am hopeful that simply adding sites alone will increase the early voting turnout for Alachua, even if the sites are not yet on college campuses.
The lowest point on the above graph is Pinellas County, with only five early voting sites for its nearly 650,000 registered voters. Pinellas County is reducing its number of early voting locations to just three for the 2018 elections. So much for encouraging voting in the mid-terms.
Most importantly, there is a definite correlation between early voting access and total turnout. We see more instability around this correlation than there was for early turnout alone, thanks to election-day voting locations being better positioned in some counties than others, as well as Vote-by-Mail options being advertised more in certain areas over others. Ultimately, there are many ways to measure accessibility, and early voting is just one of them. I believe early voting is the method most worth our efforts because it offers the greatest flexibility to the voter’s schedule while ensuring a ballot is not thrown out over issues like signature uncertainties, something that routinely disqualifies thousands of absentee ballots.
I challenge every county in Florida to serve its voters better by providing more early voting locations.
More early voting sites translates to higher early voting turnout. Higher early voting turnout translates to higher total turnout. Therefore, I challenge every county in Florida to serve its voters better by providing more early voting locations. Choosing sites that are in high-traffic areas instead of using addresses alone may help — while population density maps show where people live, they do not show where people are actually spending the hours during which early voting is available. Ensuring public transportation routes are available near sites must also be made a higher priority to better serve populations such as students and lower-income voters.
With the upcoming vote on Amendment 4 to restore the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, 1.6 million Floridians may suddenly need to be accounted for in these considerations. In addition, thousands of Puerto Rican voters have been registering in Florida in the aftermath of Irma and Maria. Youth have been pre-registering at rapid rates, too. These additions to the voter rolls will not only require more early voting sites, but will also demand that equitable access to these sites be handled very thoroughly.
Our goal as a democratic society should be stronger voter participation and civic engagement, regardless of party or ideology. Florida’s Supervisors of Elections should be eager to increase access to the polls by establishing more early voting locations, publicizing Vote-by-Mail options, and choosing election-day precinct locations that match the needs of the precinct.
If you’re a Floridian reading this and your Supervisor of Elections seems hesitant to increase voter access in a holistic manner, I implore you to check which offices are up for election this year. Perhaps your county needs a new Supervisor. Will you let them push down voters, or will you be the push?
While all data used came from the above sources, I did a lot of work to compile all information and run statistics in a spreadsheet. I welcome requests for access to this spreadsheet; just ask!