Last year, I had a hunch that Alachua County — home to the University of Florida — had not provided stellar early voting access in the 2016 General Election. After crunching some numbers, I found my hunch correct. I posed that while some counties had a lot of catching up to do, every county would benefit from providing more early voting sites.
A lawsuit was filed shortly after by six students (myself included), The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and the League of Women Voters of Florida, on the grounds that banning college campuses from hosting early voting sites in Florida was a violation of the 26th amendment. We won a preliminary injunction, and eleven new early voting sites on college campuses were placed across the state for the 2018 General Election.
With all this in mind, it’s evaluation time. Did Florida improve its early voting accessibility? If so, was there a noticeable effect? What role did the new campus sites play, if any?
The larger a county’s population, the more early voting sites it should have. Furthermore, the number of registered voters “per” early voting site is a good way to think about the demand each site must be prepared to take on. More early voting sites per registered voter means shorter lines and better attention paid to voter needs — and the way to boost this ratio is to simply provide more early voting locations.
Well, on average across the state, there was one early voting site for every 26,258 registered voters in 2018, a decrease from 26,378 in 2016. Even the most moderate decrease in that ratio is a huge sign of progress.
Alachua County went above and beyond, adding three early voting sites including one on the University of Florida campus. In contrast, Pinellas County maintained only five early voting sites 2018 (the same as in 2016), yet is one of Florida’s largest counties. Sarasota and Volusia counties also did not meet the statewide average in early voting access. All three of these counties are home to public college campuses, yet hosted no on-campus early voting. I wonder who is being under-served?
Florida specifically implemented and expanded early voting in order to to reduce Election Day lines. The higher the turnout from early voting, the less chaos on Election Day. Luckily, there is a pretty clear correlation between the number of registered voters served per Early Voting site and that county’s early turnout.
Pinellas County fits perfectly on the trendline with an early turnout of 8.29 percent. When you only provide five early voting sites to over 660,000 registered voters, it might not be so shocking that few voters turn out early. Meanwhile, Alachua County performs well at 22.4 percent, and Duval County — which added two sites between 2016 to 2018, both on college campuses— excels with an early turnout of 27.3 percent.
In fact, of the eight counties which added on-campus early voting sites in 2018, five of them had a change in early turnout of 11 percent or more from 2014. The statewide average increase in early turnout was 8 percent, for comparison.
Miami-Dade County actually eliminated four sites from 2016, but two sites at Miami-Dade College (MDC) were added last-minute. Miami-Dade’s early turnout increased by over 12.3 percent from 2014 despite the overall decrease in number of sites. With 19,000 early voters coming from the MDC sites, it becomes clear that a smart and convenient location played a major role in generating substantial early turnout. For Orange County, the story is the same: two previous sites were removed, but one was added at the University of Central Florida, which subsequently served over 5,000 early voters. As such, Orange County’s early turnout increased by 12.4 percent.
The verdict? Yes, most Florida counties improved their early voting accessibility in 2018 by simply adding more locations. However, even more interestingly, there is an unmistakable correlation with the choice of where new sites are located and improved turnout.
College campuses make sense as a starting point for smart, cost-effective early voting sites. They are a hub for thousands of young people who are generally “stuck” in one area for an entire day, often without reliable transportation. But equity and accessibility must go off-campus, too. Ensuring sites are within walking distance to populations without reliable transportation is key. Florida is bracing itself for an onslaught of newly-registered voters who were formerly incarcerated, thanks to the passing of Amendment 4. Placing early voting sites where they can actually be reached by new voter bases must be an absolute priority. We must pressure Supervisors of Elections to make these changes, but we must also pressure the state to ensure Supervisors are even allowed to make these changes. We owe it to voter-suppressed communities to ensure their franchise will be protected.