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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Pandemic at the Polls: Student Government should not host in-person elections

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UF Student Government has long been a legal and public relations liability to our university. Some years, our Student Body President gets arrested. Other years, SG drags UF into a lawsuit.

This year, it looks like SG is chugging full steam ahead toward hosting in-person elections during a pandemic.

Our SG Supervisor of Elections contacted the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections recently asking for best practices for operating polling locations, stating that “we want our SG elections to operate as closely to the local, state, and federal elections.” This past Sunday, she also proposed having early voting for SG elections, which our Elections Commission approved. I’ll admit that it is nice and certainly dilutes risk over a longer period of time. However, it’s still us having in-person elections during a pandemic when we really don't have to.

An untold amount of people nationwide will die as an unintentional consequence of hosting in-person primary and general elections this fall. Is that something SG really wants to emulate?

In response to Florida becoming the COVID-19 epicenter of the world, I announced and wrote a bill to enable digital absentee balloting for the Fall SG election. No one from the majority party was interested in working together on it.

For those unaware, we would have switched over to online voting like the rest of the SEC’s 13 member universities if it hadn’t been for an SG Supreme Court decision in 2016 that gave abstentions on constitutional amendments the same effect as “no” votes. The court retroactively invalidated amendments, including one concerning online voting, and SG hasn’t been able to amend its own constitution since then. 

Now while it’s unfortunate that SG wants to emulate a federal government hell-bent on killing its own citizens, I would argue that SG “unfortunately” has to abide by UF regulations.

UF issued new event regulations mandating physical distancing, limiting attendance for indoor gatherings to 50 people, requiring rosters with attendee contact information and even asking event organizers to include digital alternatives to physically attending their event. Any normal person can see how this doesn’t exactly play well with in-person elections.

I’ve also noticed that almost all of the traditional polling locations for SG elections may be closed. 

UF Housing and Residence Life already indicated that shared common areas in residence halls will face restrictions this Fall. There is also a new policy stating that “no guests or visitors are permitted within the residence halls,” so that more explicitly knocks out four of the 11 typical voting locations.

Southwest Recreation Center, also a polling location, is currently closed between 10 a.m. and noon on weekdays because a specialized machine comes and sprays everything down then.

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What about the computer lab in the Reitz Union? Unfortunately, “the current maximum attendance for indoor events and gatherings within the Reitz Union is 10 persons.”

I emailed administrators from Heavener Hall, Marston Science Library, Health Science Center Library, Norman Education Library Computer Lab and the Law School. They all said they will not be able to host polling locations this Fall. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee failed my bill for digital absentee balloting. Then, members of the majority party wrote legislation that, instead of making our elections safer, will abolish public campaign finance reports and prevent people from deciding how to turn in their mail-in ballots.

SG's Supervisor of Elections has not responded to my last four emails.

I would like to remind the administrators in Tigert Hall that their “laissez faire” approach to SG hasn’t exactly turned out well these past couple of years. SG, as usual, is asking for trouble. It plans to defy our university regulations and put students at risk. Now what?

Zachariah Chou is a UF political science and journalism senior. He served as the Murphree Area Senator and now serves as The Alligator’s Opinion Editor.

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