A bipartisan request to place an election-day voting precinct on the Georgia Southern University campus has drawn a counterproposal to instead hold three days of early voting on campus prior to the Nov. 6 general election.
Bulloch County Elections Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones made the counteroffer to conduct early voting on campus Oct. 23, 24 and 25; a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. GSU student leaders from the College Republicans, Young Democrats and Student Government Association expressed support during a meeting Monday with Jones and the Board of Elections.
Georgia Southern’s interim dean of students indicated that university officials also support the idea and are considering the Russell Union student center as the most likely location.
As Jones pointed out, an election-day polling place would serve only those students who live in the assigned precinct. But the early voting location would be open to all students registered to vote in Bulloch County, and indeed, to any Bulloch County voters.
For now, Jones’ proposal is to try the GSU location just for the November general election, and even that, she said, will require pre-clearance by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. Unlike a polling place with an assigned precinct, an early voting site can be temporary.
“A polling place is fixed, and every time the county has an election we’d have to open that polling place, and like if there’s an election in July, there might not be that many students on campus,” Jones said. “So this gives us more flexibility, plus with the precinct, it would only have been open 12 hours on Election Day.”
But the three days of early voting add up to 27 hours of voting opportunity. Additionally, the Oct. 23-25 timing will allow any Georgia-resident GSU students who discover that they are not eligible to vote in Bulloch County either to go home and vote on the statewide early voting Saturday, Oct. 27, or to request a mailed absentee ballot, Jones said.
State law now requires 21 days of early voting prior to most elections. Early voting locations already planned for the general election in Bulloch County are the courthouse, which would be open for voting all 21 days, and the Honey Bowen Building at Fair Road Park, open six days.
The original request for an on-campus precinct came from an informal coalition of politically active students and local party members. Aron Randall, the GSU senior who now serves as vice chair of the Bulloch County Republican Party, and Bill Herring, the retired corporate executive who serves as treasurer of the Bulloch County Democratic Party, discussed the idea during voter registration efforts before last November’s county election on Sunday alcoholic beverage sales.
Only 15.5 percent of the county’s voters turned out for that election. When the Blue Goose bus service offered free rides to the polls from a location near campus, there were no takers.
Randall referred to these results as “sad.” Expressing support for the early voting site, he said he believes that more students want to participate but are confused about where to vote or don’t know where to find polling places off campus.
“Participation is sad,” Randall said. “We need to make it easier for them to vote, and if that means putting a polling station on every corner, then that’s what I want to do, if it’s going to take that to get people to vote.”
GSU College Republicans Chairman Jeff Brown and Community Outreach Director Fritz Chapin also expressed support for the proposal. Chapin recalled that when he was a freshman in 2008, one of his professors cancelled class the day of the presidential election, after first taking class time to show students local polling places on a map.
“With this new satellite station on campus, that’s going to give all the students and all the faculty a good chance of not having to take academic time to go be a citizen,” Chapin said.
GSU Young Democrats President Marc Silver said, “Three days of early voting – that sounds like an excellent start. I think that’s definitely a great position to start off at.”
Dominic Quarles, incoming president of the Student Government Association, said he liked the way the timing of the early voting days would give student voters a second chance if they’re not registered here.
“I think that’s the most important thing, being that every registered student isn’t registered here, so we need to allow those students to have that time to request ballots from home and be able to send those ballots back home so that even if they don’t vote as a Bulloch County resident they still can have their voice heard nationally,” Quarles said.
Interim Dean of Students Patrice Buckner said the GSU administration sees the proposal as supporting a goal “to prepare our students to be global citizens.”
Not certain yet
For now, the campus early voting site is a proposal before the Bulloch County Board of Elections. All three of the board’s members were present Monday but they have not voted on the proposal.
Elections Board Chairman JD Dunn referred to the proposal as “a start” on working with the students and other citizens to improve voter participation.
Jones referred to the proposal as having a minimal cost. This has not been calculated but would consist of paying poll workers to staff the added site, she said.
If the Elections Board approves, Jones said she would prepare details for a submission to the Justice Department, which would then have 60 days to approve or reject it or request more information.
County officials said the Board of Commissioners only role would be to include any costs in next fiscal year’s budget. Two members of that board, Chairman Garrett Nevil and Commissioner Roy Thompson, attended Monday’s discussion.
Nevil said he foresees no problems from the commissioners.
“It’s great to see everyone working together for a common cause and, you know, it’s certainly exciting to all of us to facilitate getting more voters to the polls,” he said.
Thompson agreed, saying, “This is a no-brainer. Everybody wins here.”