Vote of No Confidence

All the Republicans in Tallahassee like House Bill 1355 a lot, but a New Smyrna Beach teacher and her students do not. With apologies to Dr. Seuss, the bill approved by the legislature in May imposes a new set of voting rules that are producing some decidedly Grinch-like outcomes.

The new law restricts how third-party groups can register voters, bars voters from changing their addresses at the polls, and reduces from 14 to eight the number of days early voting is offered. The law’s Republican backers say the changes were needed to prevent voter fraud, though instances of fraud are exceedingly rare. Critics claim the changes are designed to suppress voting among young voters, minorities and the elderly — groups that traditionally lean Democratic.

Regardless of one’s partisan inclinations, the new law has clearly produced some unwanted results. New Smyrna Beach civics teacher Jill Cicciarelli, who was on maternity leave when the legislature approved the changes, was unfamiliar with the law. But she broke it at the start of the school year when she attempted to pre-register 50 students to vote without registering herself with the state as a third-party organization, as required by law. Cicciarelli received a terse letter from Secretary of State Kurt Browning, saying it was “the first and last warning” she would receive. She could have faced a fine of up to $1,000.

Another teacher was not so lucky. Browning has asked Attorney General Pam Bondi to seek civil fines against Dawn Quarles, a government teacher at Pace High School in the western Florida Panhandle, for turning in voter registrations late. She claims she was not aware the deadline had been changed from 10 days to just 48 hours.

Chris Cate, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of State, says officials are looking into six possible violations in all, including both the Quarles and Cicciarelli cases. “Our goal is to encourage voter drives while protecting voters, while making sure their registrations forms are submitted in a timely manner,” he says. “The last thing we want is a voter showing up at the polls and being told they can’t vote because their registration forms weren’t submitted in time by a third-party registrar.”

Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties have not seen the types of problems reported in other parts of the state — at least, not so far. Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland suggests that’s because officials have a good working relationship with teachers and administrators, and are finding ways to register new voters without violating the law.

“We work closely with the schools and even deputize teachers as deputies to help with the process,” he says.

Vicki Cannon, Nassau County’s elections supervisor, sends deputies out to help with voter education, school elections and outreach activities. “When our deputies cannot be present, we provide the Florida Voter Registration Application with a postage-paid envelope for the voter to use to return their applications,” Cannon says. “This is our plan for schools as well.”

This year, Clay County elections officials have visited 26 schools, including seven high schools and one college, to get out their voter registration message, as well as sign up voters at just about every fair and festival in the county. Those efforts have added 1,050 new voters, according to Clay County’s Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless.

Vicki Oakes, elections supervisor for St. Johns County, works with the school system to develop programs where students can register. She says it’s too early to determine if the new laws will impede voter registrations, but says her office and the other supervisors will continue to enforce the law.

“It is not a difficult thing,” she says. “Making people responsible is not a bad thing.”

However, none of those four counties has had problems with voter fraud. Though Florida’s elections are nationally synonymous with chaos and illegitimacy, cases are almost unheard of where an individual attempts to falsely register and vote.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) finds the new measures unnecessary and contrary to democratic goals of voter participation. He wrote to Gov. Rick Scott in October, asking that the new provisions be revoked, and he’s seeking a federal investigation into 14 states — mainly Republican controlled — that have made similar changes to their voting laws.

Nelson, who is seeking re-election in 2012, pointed to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of School of Law, which found the laws could make it harder for 5 million voters to cast ballots. In a Nov. 3 letter, Nelson asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to have the Justice Department determine if the slew of new voting laws are part of a concerted effort to suppress voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election.

Nelson has also asked a Senate panel to conduct a Congressional investigation of the voting law changes, and is awaiting an answer from Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

“It’s voter suppression,” says Nelson, who met with the New Smyrna Beach teacher and some of her students in his Orlando office to discuss the issue. “If this can happen to a teacher and her students, then this is not a good thing.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined other voting rights groups in opposing the rules, and has labeled the new law as the “Voter Suppression Act.”

The League of Women Voters has also objected to the rules, which prompted the organization to cease its voter registration efforts in the state for the first time in 72 years.

“The new law imposes a huge number of administrative and financial burdens on voter registration organizations like the League,” says Jessica Lowe-Minor, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Tallahassee, “and we simply do not have the resources necessary to comply.”

League President Deidre Macnab calls the new rules “draconian” and told The Tampa Tribune that it was a transparent attempt to make it “harder to vote.”

“They’re using ‘fraud’ as a red herring,” ?she said, adding that it will “not only reduce voter registration, it will frustrate voters on Election Day.”

Ron Word

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