UGA under pressure to allow in-person early voting on campus

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2020, file photo, a student, wearing a face mask, enters the school book store at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. The number of Americans newly diagnosed with the coronavirus is falling — a development experts credit at least partly to increased wearing of masks — even as the outbreak continues to claim nearly 1,000 lives in the U.S. each day. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

School will review its policy amid pushback

Student groups, politicians and one of the state’s top elections officials urged the University of Georgia to reverse course Wednesday and allow early voting on campus, prompting the school to review its policy.

School spokesman Greg Trevor said late Wednesday that 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 outrage followed a Wednesday statement from UGA Votes, a student-led voting rights group, that it was “deeply saddened” that the school would not allow on-campus, in-person voting at a student center over concerns social distancing would be unenforceable.

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 demanding the university “not be complicit in voter suppression” by closing the site. It quickly attracted hundreds of signatures.

“COVID-19 must never be used as an excuse to limit voting access, including on college campuses,” said Abrams, adding that the school has “increased opportunity for participation among students in the past, and they should be safely given the same access this year.”

University of Georgia undergraduate students move into Russell Hall one week before the start of the fall semester during the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Athens, Ga. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Trevor, the UGA spokesman, initially said the school decided early this summer not to hold an on-campus site for the three-week early voting period that begins Oct. 12 because of long voting lines and “insufficient indoor space” at the Tate Center complex where it would have been staged.

ExploreThe town-and-gown clash over COVID-19 in Athens

“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,” said Trevor, adding that the university will run shuttle buses from campus to a polling site in downtown Athens.

The campus has made steady gains in fighting the spread of 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.

Mokah Johnson, a Democratic House candidate for an Athens-based district, urged the school to consider a “higher capacity outdoor venue that UGA already believes can safely accommodate” thousands during the pandemic: Sanford Stadium, the football venue on campus where gridiron games will soon be played.

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 said. “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.”

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