UPDATE: Stegeman Coliseum has been approved by state and local officials to serve as an early voting site on the University of Georgia campus, according to UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor. Social distancing protocols will be followed.
The original story continues below.
The University of Georgia’s decision to not allow in-person early voting at Tate Student Center drew criticism from the UGA and Athens communities after UGA Votes, a student-led voter engagement group that hosted on-campus voting for the 2016 and 2018 elections, announced the decision on Wednesday morning.
UGA released two statements later Wednesday in response to social media criticism. The first statement noted concerns about “long voting lines and insufficient indoor space” to safely conduct in-person voting at the Tate Center amid the coronavirus pandemic. The second stated that UGA was “more than willing to make a safer site” available if approved by the Secretary of State and local election office.
The university’s first statement was released on Twitter at 5:11 p.m. Wednesday and addressed an argument made across social media that UGA would allow football and fans on campus starting Oct. 3, but it would not allow early voting at the Tate Center. The statement also said that the university will provide a shuttle service to off-campus early voting sites such as the courthouse in downtown 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. We have eliminated tailgating as well due to a desire to keep the campus as safe as possible and limit visitors during the pandemic,” the statement said.
.@universityofga has denied @UGAvotes request for an early voting location. This bipartisan student-led effort has helped 1000s of students vote.— Mokah for Georgia (@mokahforgeorgia) September 16, 2020
I have one idea for a higher capacity outdoor venue that UGA already believes can safely accommodate 1000s during a pandemic. #gapol https://t.co/5xCU6JUXTw pic.twitter.com/ICp6Nct2t8
Numerous UGA students, as well as local political figure Mokah Jasmine Johnson, who is running for Georgia state House District 117, responded to UGA’s first statement with criticism.
“We’re not asking them to host it in Tate Center. As a research institution that touts its creativity and innovation, they should consider using Stegemen or Sanford as new alternative voting locations,” Johnson said in a statement to The Red & Black. “Let’s build on UGA Athletics’ earlier commitment to civic engagement and social justice by making voting accessible to our community.”
One of Johnson’s tweets caught the attention of Pejman Rohani, the UGA Athletics Association professor in ecology and infectious diseases.
Rohani’s response said having thousands of people gather in Athens-Clarke County for a football game would be “far worse for contagion” than hundreds of people going to vote for a “reasonably brief period.”
On Wednesday at 6:49 p.m., UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor sent The Red & Black a copy of the statement released on Twitter about two hours before as well as an additional statement that UGA is open to considering “other venues that local elections officials may suggest that would maintain social distancing and protect the health and safety of our students.”
Near the end of August, UGA Votes started conversations with UGA Government Relations about hosting early voting, UGA Votes Executive Director Marshall Berton said. After the Tate Center was deemed unable to accommodate social distancing measures, UGA Votes pivoted to try and use Stegeman Coliseum, a larger venue, for early voting, Berton said.
Using Stegeman Coliseum was initially approved by the University of Georgia Athletic Association, but it was later deemed “infeasible,” according to UGA Votes’ Wednesday morning statement. UGA’s second statement, released on Twitter at 8:03 p.m., stated early voting could possibly take place at Stegeman Coliseum.
“That’s why we sort of released the statement earlier this morning,” Berton said. “Just letting people know that this isn’t a service we are able to offer, but we’re hoping to continue working with the administration as well as the athletic department and board of elections to make sure voting is as easy as possible for UGA students.”