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Brenda Blagg: Students told no

UA movement for vote center may not be over by Brenda Blagg | August 28, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.

The University of Arkansas won't get an early voting center -- at least not now.

The Washington County Election Commission turned down the request recently, even though the idea had strong support on campus.

Why wouldn't it have strong support?

With 27,000 students enrolled plus all the faculty and staff who work there, there's a huge population of potential voters who would have been convenienced by a voting center on campus.

The UA chancellor and the assistant vice chancellor for university housing wrote letters of support, as did some local legislators.

Students even offered to pay for the center, including parking places for poll workers.

Besides, other colleges in the state have on-campus voting sites. Why not the University of Arkansas?

Students involved in promoting the idea thought they made their case.

But the commissioners rejected the idea, voting 2-1 against it. Chairman Bill Ackerman and commissioner Renee Oelschlaeger, both Republicans, voted against while Max Deitchler, a Democrat, voted for creating the on-campus center.

Naturally, disappointed students cited the partisan split as evidence the Republicans don't want them voting, but reports from the meeting don't support that conclusion.

One of the reasons for the rejection relates to the cost and rejection of the idea that students could pay for the site.

Commissioners wisely declined the funding offer, suggesting it would be a bad precedent that might prompt other entities to want to pay for their own on-site polling places, where voters might be unduly influenced or intimidated.

The commission's decision really seemed to have been based more on geography than anything else.

The Washington County Courthouse, the main voting site in all of the county, is just a mile away, a straight shot up Dickson Street from the Fayetteville campus.

Surely, sometime during the two weeks that early voting is allowed before the general election, prospective voters can find time to drop by there to vote.

Those driving from campus to the courthouse can find easy parking. And the walk isn't out of reason for most people without transportation from campus.

On election day, there are even other options for potential voters. Washington County voters may now vote at any polling place, not just the one in an assigned voting precinct.

Commissioner Oelschlaeger, in explaining her vote against a campus center, compared the convenience of the courthouse to campus to the miles-long drives some rural voters must make to get to a polling place.

They still vote, despite the inconvenience, she argued. UA voters can, too.

Presumably, they will.

But that doesn't mean this push for an on-campus voting site is over.

Most of the county's voting sites are where they are because they've always been there. They were set up so Washington County residents could vote near where they lived. And, when most were set, people had to vote in their precincts.

Students were generally expected to register to vote in their home counties, not where they go to college, so there arguably was little reason to accommodate students as voters.

Today, many students are nontraditional students, with families and jobs and permanent residences in Washington County. Even the more traditional students may choose to register to vote here.

Student numbers, even without adding in faculty and staff, are huge. The potential voter population on campus far exceeds the population of most of Washington County's cities, so some future accommodation might be called for.

The students didn't make their case this time, but they could eventually win the argument.

Commentary on 08/28/2016

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