Thirty-one thousand people live, work, and attend class on the University of Arkansas' campus in Fayetteville. All told, they account for more than 20 percent of the voting-age population in Washington County, and they deserve what their colleagues at Arkansas State University, Hendrix College, and the University of Central Arkansas receive each election cycle: an on-campus polling station.
A bipartisan coalition of students, faculty, and staff are preparing to make just that point to the Washington County Election Commission today. We should all stand behind their effort.
The UA's fight to protect the franchise of its community predates this election cycle. Similar efforts have been launched every two years since at least 2008, and every two years the commission fails to establish a polling station on the UA campus. I participated in one such effort during the 2010 midterm elections--we never made it past an introductory email to the commission.
But the biggest difference between those failed efforts and today's is this: There is a clear, demonstrable, and undeniable consensus in support of the station from the entire campus community. Progressive and conservative student groups have partnered with Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz, the Associated Student Government, and the faculty and staff on campus to proclaim that the UA deserves its own polling station. Their righteousness is underscored by the sheer logic of their humble request.
If the commission is concerned with locating its polling stations in the most efficient locations available in the county, then it will grant the UA's request. No other Washington County locale is occupied by one-fifth of the voting population each and every day. Establishing a polling station on the UA campus--in the state's flagship institution of higher education in the jurisdiction's county seat--is both poetic and pragmatic.
If the commission is concerned with acting as good stewards--and they should be--of the public's tax dollars, then it will grant the UA's request. Polling stations typically cost around $7,000 to build and operate--a sizable sum for a relatively small governing body. But the coalition advocating on behalf of the UA has already raised the funds necessary for operation of the station--a claim I doubt that other potential host locations could make. Establishing a polling station on campus is the fiscally responsible course of action.
I have no doubt that an argument can and will be made for denying the campus its long-sought-after polling station--and I have no doubt that it can be done without violating the letter of our great state's electoral law. The commission has successfully condoned such an argument for the better part of a decade.
But I have every confidence that such an argument would violate the spirit of that law--and that it shirks the commission's awesome responsibility to empower its constituents by making their participation in the democratic process as easy and convenient as possible. We should expect more from our public officials than a devolution into the hyperpartisan and slavish focus on accomplishing only the bare minimum.
I expect the commission to do better by its constituents than that.
Placing a polling station on the UA campus would provide the commission with an opportunity to send a clear and uplifting message to the people of Washington County: that the body entrusted with protecting our nation's most sacred democratic process will not play politics with the voting rights of its constituents.
They can and should use this opportunity to transcend the pettiness and the partisanship that our politics so often engender. More importantly, the members of the commission should use this moment to proclaim that their fidelity to a political party is not greater than their fidelity to the franchise of their constituents.
Should the commission choose to once again deny the UA its polling station, it risks betraying the public's trust in free and fair elections along the way. More importantly, the commission risks alienating a campus and a community that represents the social, cultural, and economic engine of the county they purport to represent. If the imprimatur of fairness and fiscal responsibility is important to the Commission, they have no choice but to grant the UA's request.
Maybe I'm a fool, but this time I think they might just live up to their vital, public obligations.
Billy Fleming is a former UA Student Government president (2010-2011) and is a Campaign Steering Committee member of the Fay Jones School of Architecture.
Editorial on 07/25/2016
Print Headline: Playing politics