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Politics

Teacher says no way to comply with Florida's voting law

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 05:17 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

A teacher who may become the first person fined for violating Florida's new Republican-sponsored election law says there's no way she could have complied with a provision on voter registration drives even if she had known about it.

Dawn Quarles faces a potential $1,000 fine for allegedly turning in her students' voter registration applications more than 48 hours after they were signed. The old deadline had been 10 days.

"That's ridiculous, that's crazy," Quarles said in a telephone interview Monday night. "I don't know about it, so how can I abide by it?"

Quarles teaches government at Pace High School in the western Florida Panhandle, which is solid GOP territory.

She acknowledged erring in the past but said this year she made sure to get her students' applications turned in within 10 days, not realizing the time limit had been shortened.

It's one of several changes in the law that critics say are designed to suppress voting by minorities, young people and the elderly, voter groups that traditionally lean Democratic. The law's sponsors say the revisions are needed to prevent voting fraud. It also shortens the number of early voting days and requires people who at polling places change their addresses from one county to another to cast provisional ballots.

Quarles said 48 hours isn't enough time to get the forms mailed to the Santa Rosa County elections supervisor's office in nearby Milton.

"It's an unintended consequence," said Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Prekindergarten-12 Committee.

Wise, who voted for the law, said registering students to vote should be part of their civics lessons.

"It's a teachable moment. Why don't we allow people to do teachable moments for young people?" Wise said. "Sometimes things go overboard a little bit."

At least one local elections official, though, has found a way around the 48-hour impediment.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel realized early on that the new law would cut into high school registration drives. So, in July, he swore in each high school principal as a deputy supervisor of elections for the limited purpose of collecting applications from students.

With that designation, the principals are not subject to the law's third-party registration requirements including the 48-hour deadline. State election officials have approved of Ertel's tactic.

But Quarles said that even before the new law was passed this year, the rules and regulations already were so strict that she had discontinued school-wide registration drives conducted by students. This year, she distributed applications only to those students in her classes.

"We have the worst voter turnout of any Western democracy and this is the reason why," Quarles said.

State officials once looked the other way at registration drive violations, but last week Secretary of State Kurt Browning wrote a letter asking Attorney General Pam Bondi to seek civil fines from Quarles, who received a copy Tuesday in the mail.

Browning, an appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, wrote that local election officials had documented 76 registration applications that appeared to have been submitted late. The fine is $50 per violation with an annual cap of $1,000 per organization, the same as under the old law. An individual conducting a registration drive also is considered an organization under the law.

"The penalties existed for turning in late forms, but they weren't being enforced," said Browning spokesman Chris Cate. "Now, we are reviewing each violation and determining whether it needs to be sent to the Attorney General's Office for enforcement."

Browning, meanwhile, has asked a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., for "preclearance," or approval, of four sections of the new law, including the third-party voter registration provision. Preclearance is required by the federal Voting Rights Act due to past discrimination in five Florida counties. The new election law, though, has been put into effect in the other 62 counties.

Browning originally sought preclearance from the Justice Department, which has approved other parts of the law. Before then, he had asked the court instead to handle the four sections that have drawn the most opposition, saying he wanted to remove the decision from outside influence.

More than two dozen individuals and organizations, though, have intervened in opposition to preclearance. The groups include the Florida League of Women Voters, which has stopped doing registration drives because of the new law.

"We want to encourage voter drives, not stifle them," Cate said in an email. "But at the same time, we must protect the people registering to vote."

The Department of State on Tuesday also released a warning letter that Browning sent last week to New Smyrna Beach High School teacher Jill Cicciarelli that accused her of filing 50 applications late. Browning wrote that it was the "first and last warning" that she and the school's student government would receive.

Cicciarelli received only a warning because, unlike Quarles, she had no prior violations and apparently was unaware of the law, Cate said.

Browning contended Quarles should be fined because she knew enough about election law to register with his office in the past as a third-party organization and had prior violations although not penalized for them. He also noted, though, she failed to register again this year as required by the new law.

"This is another attempt to squeeze money out of an already struggling constituency," Quarles said.

Teachers already have been hit this year with what is in effect a pay cut due to another new state law. It requires public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the Florida Retirement System.

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