University of Georgia changes course, will host in-person voting
The University of Georgia has reversed a widely criticized decision to scrap on-campus voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The university said Thursday that Stegeman Coliseum - a 10,523-seat venue that normally hosts basketball, volleyball and winter commencement events - would be used as an early-voting site.
"We are pleased to announce that Stegeman Coliseum at the University of Georgia has been approved by state and local officials to serve as an early voting site on the UGA campus," UGA spokesman Greg Trevor said in a statement Thursday.
Trevor told The Washington Post that eligible voting locations are determined by the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections.
A day earlier, the school cited long lines and insufficient indoor space as making voting on campus too risky, prompting swift backlash. Students, local politicians and observers noted UGA had made numerous accommodations so the fall football season can play out, with crowds of up to 23,000 fans cramming into Sanford Stadium.
"If we can have football, we should have voting, too," the university chapter of Fair Fight, a voting rights advocacy group, tweeted on Wednesday.
The school dismissed those criticisms: "Those comparing this matter to a football game should be able to recognize that football games will be played outdoors but we will still require social distancing by substantially reducing capacity in the stadium," it said in a statement.
UGA Votes, a student-led, nonpartisan voter engagement organization, welcomed Thursday's news. Marshall Berton, a junior at UGA who serves as the group's executive director, told The Post that student interest in casting a ballot this year is particularly strong.
"I think people are really excited: For a lot of university students, this is our first presidential election," Berton said. "This does feel like a really crucial election, no matter what side you're on."
It remains unclear what prompted UGA's change of course Thursday; university officials did not elaborate on deliberations behind the change. Berton said his group has not received an explanation, either.
UGA Votes had hosted early voting sites in 2016 and 2018 at the Tate Student Center in partnership with the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections, but the group was denied using the center for 2020, mostly due to social distancing concerns, Berton said.
The group then moved to use the Stegeman Coliseum and approached UGA's athletic department with the request in early September, Berton said. The board of elections was ready to take action until the UGA denied the request to use the arena.
"Their primary issue was that they needed to thoroughly clean the facility every night the way they do classrooms. They didn't feel that could be adapted to the coliseum based on the proposal," Berton said.
He said the group generally agreed the Tate Center was not feasibly this year, but was confused that the school's Wednesday statement never addressed UGA Votes' core issue of whether Stegeman could be used as an alternate site.
Berton noted the that UGA faced heavy "internal and external pressure" late Wednesday and that the viral news there would be no on-campus voting drew commentary from elected officials in the state.
"The other reason could be that the first request just didn't make it up totem pole in the hierarchy of university's administration," Berton said. He noted it was never clear which administrator denied the initial request.
We are pleased to announce that Stegeman Coliseum at the University of Georgia has been approved by state and local officials to serve as an early voting site on the UGA campus. Social distancing protocols will be followed in this large, indoor venue.
Early voting in Georgia runs from Oct. 12 to Oct. 30, with on-campus early voting expected to run three days near the end of October, Berton said.
The UGA voting news unfolded against the backdrop of the state's contentious battles of voter disenfranchisement. Voter access has been hugely controversial and where Republican Brian Kemp, now the governor, has been accused of suppressing votes while he was overseeing a tight election as secretary of state and simultaneously running for his current office.
Before the announcement to host on-campus voting, UGA said it would offer student voters shuttle service to an off-site polling place in downtown Athens. The decision, juxtaposed with the school's controversial football season set to begin later this month, did not sit well with some critics.
Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and founder of Fair Fight, said the campus should reverse its decision.
"#COVID19 must never be used as an excuse to limit voting access, including on college campuses," she said in a tweet.
Many local and national politicians, current students and alumni echoed Abrams's concerns about student access to the polls.
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The Washington Post's Darren Sands contributed to this report.
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