Facing intense criticism from both sides of the aisle, the University of Georgia reversed course on Thursday and announced it would allow in-person, on-campus early voting next month at the school’s basketball arena.
UGA spokesman Greg Trevor said state and local elections officials approved the university’s offer to use Stegeman Coliseum as an early-voting site and that “social distancing protocols will be followed in this large, indoor venue.”
The reversal comes after fierce pushback from student groups, politicians and a top state elections official who demanded the school drop its opposition to hosting an on-campus polling site when in-person voting begins on Oct. 12.
Among the critics of the school’s stance was Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate who founded the Fair Fight voting rights group. The organization launched a petition Wednesday that attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
The school also faced criticism from Jordan Fuchs, the chief deputy to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who is Georgia’s top elections official.
“As an alumna, I have the utmost respect for the greatest institution this country has ever seen,” she told the AJC. “But UGA needs to evaluate the needs of the community it serves and open its doors to the taxpayers and voters that make their success possible.”
Trevor initially said the school decided early this summer not to hold an on-campus site because of long voting lines and “insufficient indoor space” at the Tate Center complex where it would have been staged.
He had also rejected criticism from those who noted UGA will host two college football games before the Nov. 3 election at Sanford Stadium, which is smack in the middle of campus.
“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,” he said.
Hours later, as his statement drew widespread criticism on social media, Trevor said UGA is “more than willing” to consider Stegeman Coliseum or another site that’s approved by local elections officials and the Secretary of State’s office.
The campus has made steady gains in fighting the disease, mirroring recent improvements across the state. UGA said Wednesday that the number of infections had fallen to 421 in the week that ended Sunday, down from 1,490 cases the week before.
Still, the school’s efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 has caused strains between the Athens-Clarke County government and UGA officials over how to contain the disease.
Though it’s the smallest county in Georgia, Athens-Clarke is an important trove of Democratic votes.
Hillary Clinton won the county with roughly two-thirds of support in 2016, and Democrats aim to mobilize students this cycle as they try to carry the state for the first time since 1992. Athens-Clarke residents will also vote in competitive races for both Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, state legislative contests and district attorney.
Stegeman joins a growing list of sports stadiums and arenas around the nation to be used as early-voting sites. State Farm Arena in Atlanta became the state’s largest polling site ahead of the August runoffs.
Grace Hall, president of UGA’s Fair Fight chapter, celebrated the school’s decision and said the group would help recruit poll workers to help ensure the voting process goes smoothly.
“The last 24 hours have demonstrated that UGA students are committed to fight for our right to vote in a free and fair election,” she said.