By Andrew Caplan

Calling it a "ham-handed" effort to keep young voters from casting ballots, a federal judge Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional an opinion issued by Gov. Rick Scott's administration that barred early-voting sites on college and university campuses.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found that the Florida Department of State's prohibition against campus early-voting sites "is facially discriminatory on account of age," and that it "imposes significant burdens on plaintiffs' rights weighted against imprecise, insufficiently weighty government interests."

In May, the League of Women Voters of Florida and several students from the University of Florida and one from Florida State University sued Secretary of State Ken Detzner to push for early voting on college campuses.

Tuesday's ruling allows early voting to occur until the case is ruled upon. Walker wrote that the secretary of state's previous opinion to bar early voting at universities or college campuses was unconstitutional, violating the 1st, 14th and 26th amendments.

"Voting is the beating heart of democracy," Walker wrote.

Walker said in his 40-page ruling that his ruling doesn't mandate that college campuses be used as early voting sites. All voting sites are determined by each county's supervisor of elections.

Plaintiff Megan Newsome, a UF researcher and recent UF graduate, said the ruling was a significant step foward and that she is hopeful county officials will make the change to permit voting on campus soon.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I think it's a hopeful start."

Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton said it's too close to the August primary to add on-campus early voting sites, but she will work with county officials to try and make it happen in time for November's general election.

"I'm not one way or the other, but you need to have money for it," Barton said. "It takes equipment we don't have."

The Alachua County Commission passed a resolution supporting early voting on campus. Gainesville's City Commission in May passed a similar resolution.

Before 2013, elections offices, city halls and libraries were the only permitted early voting sites. The Florida Legislature expanded that in 2013, but didn't specifically include university or college campuses into the expanded early voting statute.

In 2014, after a group of students attended a City Commission meeting, Gainesville City Attorney Nicolle Shalley asked the state's Division of Elections whether UF's J. Wayne Reitz Union classified as a "government-owned community center" or as a "convention center" that would've fit within the state's early voting law.

Later that month, Detzner's office told Shalley that the Reitz Union building didn't qualify as a potential location under Florida law.

Detzner, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, stated that the building was designed for and affiliated with "a special educational institution." A Jan. 17, 2014, letter from the state's Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews to Shalley stated: "the terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly."

Scott's spokesman McKinley Lewis said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the governor's office will review the ruling. He also said Scott "signed the largest expansion of early voting in the state's history."

Since 2008, early voting numbers have increased. Currently, the Reitz Union building on the UF campus is used as an Election Day voting site, but not for early voting, which many blame for long lines on Election Day. Critics have argued that Scott and others have tried to block college students' access to early voting campus sites becuase university towns tend to have more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Florida is home to 12 public universities and 28 colleges. Of UF's 52,000 students, about 9,000 students live on campus, making it one of the more densely populated areas in town.

About 68 percent of Gainesville's voting population is affiliated with UF or SFC, according to Tuesday's ruling.

According to the original complaint filed, younger voters are increasingly energized to vote since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead.

One plaintiff, Amol Jethwani, a 21-year-old senior at UF, is running for State House District 21. His primary opponent is Jason Haeseler. Both hope to unseat incumbent Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

(c)2018 The Gainesville Sun, Fla.