It's been a staple of civics classes ever since 18 year old citizens got the right to vote. Students have been taught that the right to vote is basic, that it is more than a privilege, more even than a basic right, although it is all of those. Young people are told that voting is also a civic duty.
When needless obstacles were thrown in front of black people in states that had once belonged to the old confederacy, the right to vote was important enough to warrant federal legislation and court protection. People died to overturn barriers ostensibly erected for legitimate reasons. After all, shouldn't voters be able to read? Shouldn't they have at least some knowledge of government and history? What could be wrong with an educated electorate? And a poll tax was certainly a small price to pay for defraying costs of elections. The real purpose became more obvious even to hardened observers as voting rights activists began to disappear, their bodies found embedded in earthen dams.
One common part of teaching about civic duty has traditionally been actually registering newly eligible voters as they came of age. Voting registration forms have been an important part of high school education.
For several months, a high school civics teacher in Florida has been under a legal cloud. Jill Cicciarelli is charged with a crime and is subject to thousands of dollars in civil penalties. It seems she engaged her classes in registering to vote, as she had done annually for years.
Florida recently passed a new law that is very easy to violate. Anyone encouraging someone to vote, and providing forms to do it, must first fill out their own forms registering with the state, then must have the state approve that registration. If the person helping voters to register passes out registration forms, any form that is filled out must be turned in within 48 hours.
That 48 hour requirement is a practical problem for traditional voter registration drives. When an organization like the Boy Scouts, or a civic groups, or a student club deals with large numbers of registrations, it is very easy to miss the 48 hour deadline. It is not just a technical violation. The fines are huge and they apply to individual volunteers.
In Jill Cicciarelli's case, the number of registrations was not the issue. She simply did not know of the requirements. She was out on maternity leave when the restrictive new laws were passed. It created quite a buzz among groups that had a long, long tradition and plenty of experience in voter registration. They were against it. But ordinary citizens who might suddenly be captivated by a good, seemingly non-controversial, idea are usually not expected to be aware of such complexities. So the unsuspecting Jill Cicciarelli was turned in by an official described as sickened by that sad duty. She had failed to register for approval by the state. She had not turned in all the registrations within 48 hours.
Her case is special. Officials are taking their time in deciding whether to prosecute her for registering eligible students. But her case is not isolated. Established groups have dropped their registration efforts. The League of Women votes has conducted voter registration drives for over 90 years. This is the first time in many decades that they will not be doing that. Voting may be a part of good citizenship, but the inadvertent violation of needlessly restrictive requirements would expose volunteers to legal reprisals.
A number of studies have pointed to several new requirements as obstacles making it harder to vote. The Brennan Foundation has estimated that 5 million voters will be prevented from voting by additional voter photo identification requirements on top of what is already required. Most of them will be students (college IDs are deliberately disqualified), the working poor, minorities, and retirees. They will be told at the polls to go home.
Advocates of tighter, more restrictive requirements initially said it was to reduce widespread voter fraud. But voter fraud turns out to be non-existent under current requirements. More recently they describe their efforts as preventative, stopping fraud that has not yet happened. Although the combination of traditional identification, a public declaration among fellow voters at the polls of name and address, and harsh penalties for violation has all worked so far, they point to the danger that it may someday not be enough.
The US Department of Justice has some jurisdiction in cases where similar efforts in the past were designed to prevent minorities from voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and kidnappings are part of Florida history. The Justice Department has filed papers to force Florida to show they are not just trying to stop legitimate voters from casting ballots.
The idea behind the Justice Department filing is that such voter restriction efforts do not just prevent legitimate voters from voting as a sad but necessary result of legitimate restrictions. Rather preventing legitimate voters from voting is the very purpose of those restrictions. Conservatives have designed such restrictions while regarding denial of voting rights as a feature, not a flaw. At some point an issue of unintended consequence becomes a matter of obviously intended consequence.
There is no word on any possible state prosecution of other high school volunteers in Jill Cicciarelli's efforts to register students. As far as we know from reports, this civics teacher is the only one in legal jeopardy for that voting drive.
Similar requirements are being rushed to enactment in Republican controlled state legislatures across the country.
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