It started out as an ordinary presentation and discussion, but led to something extraordinary. Last August, the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (FLIER) was invited by the Student Government Association (SGA) of Palm Beach State College’s Boca Raton campus to speak to the group about the negative affects of HB 1355 on students. The ensuing discussion resulted in the young leaders proposing that their statewide association adopt a formal position calling for the repeal of HB 1355 as part of its annual legislative agenda. However, they sought to do more than simply oppose a thinly veiled voter suppression law. These student leaders went further and proposed practical and intelligent reforms to remake access to voting in a better way than it was even before HB 1355. PBSC-Boca Raton’s SGA proposed a three part position to remove voting barriers and increase access to students, and by virtue, to all Floridians. The proposed position formally called for the repeal of HB 1355, the passage of SB 516 which provides greater access to early voting including permitting the use of college campuses as early voting locations, and the adoption of same-day voter registration in Florida. At their November conference, the member organizations of the Florida College System Student Government Association (FCSSGA), representing Florida’s 1 million public state college students, voted and formally adopted the proposed position in all of its parts. FLIER applauds the membership of this organization and the student leaders who had the vision and courage to propose and adopt such a bold position that is not only in the interests of students, but all Floridians. Citing the reasons for the move, PBSC-Boca Raton SGA President Aneal Joshua Ramkissoon said, “This year, our campus SGA wanted to push the envelope with the issue we would propose to the Florida College System Student Government Association. Our first priority is to advocate for the students, but we also wanted our issue to have a lasting impact on the State of Florida as a whole. We, the students are the future of this state, and we need to address some difficult issues, this one being the first step.”
Such a position is only natural for students due to the fact that HB 1355 precludes their campus student governments from engaging in voter registration, a formerly common activity, without first registering with the state. It also subjects them to steep fines if they do not turn the voter registration forms in within 48 hours, as opposed to the previous 10 day deadline. This, among other conditions, has prompted the League of Women Voters to stop their nearly century old voter registration activities in Florida. Perhaps even more importantly, the law takes away a nearly 40 year old right to change one’s address at their polling location and vote on a regular ballot, forcing them instead to vote on a provisional ballot. In 2008, 51% of provisional ballots were not even counted. It is no secret that state college students have higher rates of mobility as they typically matriculate from state college to a four year institution after obtaining an associate’s degree. The law will, and is meant to, create obstacles for this constituency. Similar laws adopted in other states have prompted New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice to estimate that 5 million voters nationwide may be disenfranchised in 2012.
FLIER believes these voters are being targeted out of a desire by one side of the two-party system to present barriers to the already limited competition offered by the other. The predictable and stagnant two-party system, dominated by a small group of large donors, encourages targeting voters that typically vote for one party over the other for lack of greater competition, pluralism, and representation. Furthermore, given that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC decision basically proved that presently money equals representation, and more money equals more representation, it is easier to betray such non-moneyed constituencies without suffering electoral consequences. In essence, these tactics are encouraged by the lack of real representative democracy in Florida and around the nation.
Florida’s 1 million state college students have taken the lead in rejecting HB 1355 and proposing reforms to afford all Floridians the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, free of partisan bias to access. What the students are proposing is certainly bold and innovative, but it is only the beginning of what is needed to build representative democracy in Florida. Elected officials should take notice and reconcile themselves with FCSSGA’s position, not only to prove that they value the concept of representative democracy at all, but that they are serving in the public’s interest as well.