Sporting a baseball cap and a Florida Gators hoodie, Matthew Hunter walked into the University of Florida’s J. Wayne Reitz Union on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, excited to vote for the first time. His heart sank just a bit when he first saw the line of others waiting to vote early vote in the 2018 midterm elections.
The line to enter room G50 wrapped around the ground floor, stretching past the Shake Smart entrance. To his relief, Hunter, an 18-year-old tourism, events and recreation management student, was in and out in about 10 minutes. Based on the line, he had expected the wait would last closer to 20 or 30 minutes.
“With it being the first election that I voted in, it was really convenient,” Hunter said. “Even though the line felt long, it went really smooth.”
For Hunter, the ability to early vote on his college campus for his first election left a lasting impression.
“The convenience of that really made it feel like there was no excuse for me to not vote,” he said.
That was exactly the reaction advocates of campus early voting were hoping young people would have. This fall, Hunter and thousands of others across the state experienced the convenience of voting on a college campus, an option Floridians previously have not had.
That option appears have have played a role in increasing voter turnout among young people, who historically have been the least likely age group to vote. For instance, in Alachua County, twice as many youth voted in 2018, compared to the 2014 midterms; in Orange County, youth voting increased by 98.5 percent from 2014 to 2018.
Florida colleges that served as early voting locations during the 2018 elections include:
- Edward Waters College (Jacksonville, Duval County)
- Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton, Palm Beach County)
- Florida International University (Miami, Miami-Dade County)
- Florida State University (Tallahassee, Leon County)
- Miami-Dade College (Miami, Miami-Dade County)
- University of Central Florida (Orlando, Orange County)
- University of Florida (Gainesville, Alachua County)
- University of North Florida (Jacksonville, Duval County)
- University of South Florida (Tampa, Hillsborough County)
- University of West Florida (Pensacola, Escambia County)
The journey to use college campuses as early voting sites dates back to 2014, when Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner instructed Gainesville officials that they would be unable to use the Reitz Union as an early voting location, citing state election laws.
After that, 22-year-old UF physics researcher Megan Newsome, alongside seven other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against Detzner to allow college campuses to be used as early voting sites.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled in favor of Newsome and the other plaintiffs in a preliminary injunction filed July 24, 2018. In the 40-page ruling, Walker wrote, “Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest. Abridging voting rights never does.”
Walker’s ruling provided individual county supervisors of elections the choice to use college campuses as early voting sites, although it did not require them to do so.
The Issue with Youth Voting
Youth voter turnout, which typically encompasses 18- to 29-year-olds, is usually “abysmal,” said Rey Junco, senior researcher at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
About 46.1 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds participated in the 2016 presidential election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This was 24.8 percentage points below the leading age group, voters 65 years old and older, 20.5 percentage points below 45- to 64-year-olds and 12.6 percentage points below 30- to 44-year-olds.
“What you have is only about 50 percent of people eligible to vote,” he said. “All the research shows that youth voter turnout is generally lower than adult turnout.”
Both Newsome and Junco noted that scheduling conflicts, lack of transportation and registration issues often inhibit younger voters from getting to the polls.
When young people don’t vote, Junco said, issues important to them — like gun control — tend not to receive much attention.
“They don’t see how their vote impacts the things that they care about and how their vote impacts what lawmakers do,” he said.
College students, like 21-year-old pre-occupational therapy student Emily Chapman, admitted she sometimes assumes her vote makes little difference. She made sure to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Chapman made sure to vote in the 2016 presidential election. But when the 2018 primary elections rolled around, a busy schedule filled with two hours of clinicals at Park Meadow Rehabilitation Center, two and a half hours of classes and four hours of babysitting prevented her from voting.
What’s Been Tried?
Junco said issues of accessibility, visibility and meaning need to be addressed in order to open elections to everyone eligible, especially young voters.
“Elections are really cool because they are a shared national moment,” he said. “The idea is that they are supposed to be open to everyone, but the reality is they are not.”
One strategy that has been helpful in increasing youth turnout is targeted registration aimed at youth voters, especially college students, Junco said. However, not all youth voters are in college, which limits this strategy.
Newsome has previously offered to drive people to polling locations on election days. But she said scheduling these rides can be frustrating and challenging.
The Impact of New Early Voting Sites
Although it is too early to determine what kind of direct impact these new early voting locations had on turnout, TJ Pyche said that youth voting, especially in Alachua County, saw “great gains” compared to the last midterm election.
“It would be difficult to argue that the Reitz Union’s early voting location did not factor into that,” said Pyche, the director of outreach for the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office.
In 2018, Florida’s youth turnout appeared to be higher than during the last midterm election in 2014, especially in counties that offered early voting on college campuses, including Alachua, Leon and Orange.
2014 general election youth voter turnout:
- Alachua County (18-30): 13,382 votes cast (16.84 percent of total votes)
- Leon County (18-30): 21,879 votes cast (20.06 percent of total votes)
- Orange County (18-34): 56,638 votes cast (17.68 percent of total votes)
2018 general election youth voter turnout:
- Alachua County (18-30): 29,665 votes cast (25.36 percent of total votes)
- Leon County (18-30): 37,989 votes cast (26.91 percent of total votes)
- Orange County (18-34): 112,481 votes cast (23.37 percent of total votes)
Youth voter turnout in 2018 increased by more than 16,000 votes in both Alachua and Leon counties compared to 2014. Orange County added 55,843 votes. In all three counties, youth votes accounted for a larger percent of the total votes, increasing by five and a half percentage points in Orange County and by eight and half percentage points in Alachua County.
In these same counties, voters ages 65 years old and older either saw their percentage of total votes cast actually decrease or remain relatively similar in 2018 from 2014, despite more votes being cast in each county. In Alachua County, that percentage fell from 24.7 percent in 2014 to 22.6 percent in 2018. In Orange County, the percentage of total votes fell from 24.62 percent in 2014 to 17.38 percent in 2018. In Leon County, the percent of total votes increased from 20.01 percent in 2014 to 20.24 percent in 2018.
A total of 7,899 voters used the Reitz Union early voting location, account for 19.3 percent of the 40,882 early votes cast in Alachua County for the 2018 midterm election.
In Leon County, 6,100 early votes were cast at Florida State University’s Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, making up 10.8 percent of the 56,120 early votes cast.
And in Orange County, 5,117 early votes were cast on the campus of the University of Central Florida, accounting for 2.8 percent of the 177,641 early votes cast.
Experts like Junco acknowledge that increased youth turnout may stem from factors other than campus early voting locations, including increased interest in the election process since 2016.
Nonetheless, campus early voting locations did offer many voters a convenient option. Following Walker’s July ruling, elections supervisors across the state started coordinating with universities to establish early voting sites.
Pyche and the Alachua County team worked with UF’s staff to ensure that the Reitz Union would be available during the early voting period, Oct. 22 through Nov. 14, and to address concerns related to resources and parking.
“The Reitz Union was a location we had previously tried to use,” he said, “and understanding it’s the building with the most public parking, most space and the most central location on campus, it seemed like the best option.”
Pyche also said that the Reitz Union is a voting location on Election Day, so the supervisor of elections office knew it was a viable option.
“I think it’s difficult to say there are other locations in Alachua County that are more central to where people work and live than the [Reitz Union.]”
These campus voting sites played a major role in helping young voters, like Hunter, ensure they would be able to vote.
“I just didn’t know if I was going to have another opportunity to vote on Election Day. I figured I was going to be busy that day,” he said. “It was on campus and I had a block of time on campus that day to go get it done.”
Most of Hunter’s Tuesdays this past semester were spent either in a lecture hall or at the Florida Gators’ football practice, where he works as a student equipment manager.
The long-term battle to bring early voting to college campuses was well worth it for activists like Newsome.
“It was more emotional [for me] than for the average voter,” she said. “It meant so much to be able to vote on campus at the early voting site. It really did take years of work. It almost surreal as I was walking toward it.”
Newsome marched to the Reitz Union to cast her vote on Nov. 1, 2018, surrounded by peers, fellow activists and Gainesville City Commissioners Harvey Ward and David Arreola.
Right before casting her vote, Newsome ate a slice of cake alongside her collaborators. That cake – a marble cake with white buttercream frosting – had one word written on it: “Vote.”
“It felt like I was in line for a roller coaster,” Newsome said. “I was very happy to see that there was a line because that meant that other people were willing to – in the middle of their busy schedules – wait for however long it took to make their voices heard.”