Oct 27, 2011

Promoting civic involvement shouldn't be a crime

St. Petersburg Times-

In an effort to provide a hands-on lesson in civic responsibility, New Smyrna Beach High School teacher Jill Cicciarelli simply wanted to register 50 of her students to vote. But what began as a routine exercise in democracy could result in Cicciarelli facing thousands of dollars in fines for violating a new state law that needlessly complicates voter registration. In their zeal to suppress the vote to gain a political advantage, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature have made it a crime for high school teachers to help students register to vote and prepare them for a life of civic engagement.

Cicciarelli preregistered 50 17-year-old students to vote at the start of the school year. But those registration forms ran afoul of Florida's new election law, which requires third parties who sign up new voters to register with the state and submit new voter application forms within 48 hours. The new rules, including an additional provision that forces some voters who change their address to cast a provisional ballot, are so onerous that even the Florida League of Women Voters has decided to suspend its voter registration efforts.

Because she was on maternity leave earlier this year, the Volusia County educator wasn't aware of the changes. While the teacher could merely receive a warning for her seditious conduct, Cicciarelli faces a potential fine of $50 for each application she improperly processed and up to a $1,000 fine for her role as an unregistered third party agent of record. That's some expensive civics lesson.

Republican lawmakers and the Scott administration disingenuously defend the new law as an effort to thwart voter fraud. But the real fraud here is the Legislature's effort to suppress voting by creating an unmanageable maze of bureaucracy, making it almost impossible for third party groups to sign up voters and reducing the window for Floridians to cast a ballot. There is no evidence of systemic voter fraud in Florida.

Many county elections supervisors, along with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, have called on Scott and the Legislature to repeal or revamp this regressive, egregiously partisan election law. For the sake of Jill Cicciarelli and her students, a young person's first experience in citizenship should not consist of being denied an opportunity to register to vote and seeing the teacher charged with a crime for promoting democracy.