The University of Georgia (UGA) faced backlash from critics after announcing Wednesday it would not be using its campus as a voting location for the 2020 presidential election. The college cited COVID-19, saying there were concerns that social distancing would be unenforceable at the voting location.
After receiving criticism, UGA said Thursday it is looking forward to working with local officials to facilitate in-person voting on campus at an arena used by its basketball teams, although it was unclear if the site would in fact become a voting location.
Many critics had said the decision to cancel in-person voting was hypocritical, as the university is allowing as many 23,000 football fans to gather at its Sanford Stadium this season, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fair Fight UGA created a petition: "Stop University of Georgia from Restricting Student Access to Voting." The group is UGA's chapter of the Fair Fight organization, which advocates for fair elections and increased voter education and engagement.
"Voting is an essential component of civic engagement that UGA should seek to promote," the petition reads. "Removing the ability of students, faculty, and staff to vote on campus, while allowing the UGA football season to proceed, sends the wrong message about our university. Certainly, the university can find a way to allow both."
Fair Fight UGA said it is "interesting that the Administration would use student safety as an excuse to limit access to democracy while disregarding student welfare in other regards."
The petition was close to its goal of 2,500 signatures as of Thursday morning.
The group tweeted out the petition on Wednesday, writing: "Sign the petition to stop @universityofga from engaging in voter suppression. Tell them to REOPEN early voting on campus. If we can have football, we should have voting, too."
U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff tweeted about the school's decision. "I urge UGA to reverse course immediately and provide students with safe, on-campus Early Voting!" Ossoff, a Democrat who also ran in the 2017 special election in Georgia's 6th congressional district, tweeted.
In responding to critics on Wednesday, UGA acknowledged that many were contrasting the school's in-person voting decision with its football decision.
"Due to concerns about long voting lines and insufficient indoor space required to maintain social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the university determined early this summer that there would be no on-campus voting site at the Tate Center this fall," UGA's tweeted statement reads.
"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 reduced capacity in the stadium," the statement continues. "We have eliminated tailgating as well due to a desire to keep the campus as safe as possible and limit visitors during the pandemic."
UGA said students will be able to vote at other locations, including one in downtown Athens, the school said in its statement. UGA will also provide shuttle service for student voters to get to that polling site.
A few hours later, it released another statement saying, "While the University cannot host an election site at the Tate Center during the pandemic, the institution remains more than willing to make a safer site, such as the Coliseum, available as approved by the Secretary of State and the local election office."
In another tweet Thursday, UGA said it was pleased to offer the county and state the use of Stegeman Coliseum as a site for early voting, and that the school looks forward "to working with state and local election officials to facilitate on-campus voting in this indoor venue, which is large enough to support safes social distancing."
In August, the school's football team announced its Sanford Stadium will be operating at approximately 20-25% capacity. Tickets are available in blocks of four "to maximize inventory and maintain social distancing measures," and there will be six feet of social distancing throughout the seating bowl, the team's site reads.
The school is taking many precautions to slow the spread of coronavirus, including setting aside 300 dedicated rooms on campus where students with COVID-19 symptoms or those who have come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus may stay in isolation or quarantine.
The school is also enhancing cleaning, requiring masks and social distancing and proving hand sanitizer, among other measures.
At the recommendation of the University's Medical Oversight Task Force, UGA began conducting COVID-19 testing on campus when it reopened for the school year on August 10, the University Health Center says. The plan is to conduct 24,000 tests by Thanksgiving, with up to 450 tests being conducted per day.
On Wednesday, the school said reports of positive cases of COVID-19 declined sharply over the last week. Positive tests at UGA are down by more than 70% from the previous week, according to data released Wednesday, UGA said in a press release. In total, 421 positive tests – including 404 among students – were reported through a university system for the period September 7-13.
There have been 299,056 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state and 6,419 deaths, according to Georgia's health departmen.