It used to be an annual ritual: High school social studies teachers
distributed voter-registration forms to seniors, and sent the filled-out
paperwork to county elections offices. They knew that many kids would not
register unless adults made it easy for them.
Yet some students who registered to vote on Tuesday, looking forward to their first presidential election, got another lesson -- one in Florida's restrictive new voter-registration laws.
The new rules, passed last year by the Legislature, make it more complicated for teachers to sign students up to vote. Teachers face hefty fines for improper registrations, so many are surrendering what they used to see as their civic duty and are inviting county elections officials to supervise the process at their schools.
Zach Schlein, a senior at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton who registered to vote on Tuesday, said the new law is "politically motivated."
"Unless a teacher gives kids the piece of paper, a lot of kids are not going to register," Schlein said. "It's another way to make it harder for young people to vote."
But others at Spanish River said the new regulations may be an improvement and prevent willful lawbreakers.
"I don't think it's malicious," senior Samuel Jordan said. "We all know that Florida harbors voter fraud."
Under the new law, community members such as teachers or civic organizations that fail to submit voter registration forms within two days could be subject to a $50 fine per late form. The previous submission period was 10 days.
The rule is one of several new Florida voter rules being challenged in the courts by the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the ACLU and other groups. Several restrictive requirements went into effect in July, including a reduction in early voting days from 14 to eight and elimination of early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
Republican lawmakers said the rules are intended to reduce voter fraud. But a New York Times study showed the law instead may be reducing the number of new voters registered: The analysis found 81,471 fewer voters have registered this year than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election.
"I do take offense that the state thinks I might be a tamperer, that they could be suspicious of my intentions," said Bretty Burkey, social studies chair at Spanish River High. "I've done this every year and I'm not going to let the Legislature be an obstacle."
Burkey said he has been following the plight of several teachers who may have violated the law. Teachers in Volusia and Santa Rosa counties who registered students have been investigated by state elections officials. The Santa Rosa teacher's case has been forwarded to the state Attorney General's Office for possible prosecution, while the Volusia teacher got a detailed letter explaining the proper procedures, said Chris Cate, Florida Department of State communications director.
Cate said the department has mailed out 16 letters that detail the law to third parties who may have broken the new rules, mostly by not submitting forms within 48 hours. In three cases, he said the department recommended a fine.
The law is not meant to discourage young voters, Cate said.
"We want Floridians to register to vote," he said. "We want teachers to be registering students."
Burkey invited a representative from the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office to register Spanish River's seniors on Tuesday. In a memo to principals in January, Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent said the district does not plan to become a registering agency under the new law, so teachers should no longer sign up students without an elections representative present. They can, however, help students register on-line or give out the forms, but students have to be responsible for sending them to the elections office.
Elections officials are not subject to the same fines as third parties.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said 1,276 students have been registered over the past few weeks. In Broward County, election officials have registered students at a record pace: More than 11,000 signed up during a week in March, the highest number since 1972, spokeswoman Evelyn Perez-Verdia said.
Broward elections office representatives visited 54 schools during the drive as part of a competition to see which school could register the most students (the winner has not yet been announced). Under the old system, a representative would have picked up the forms but would not have supervised the process, she said.
Despite the restrictions, several dozen individuals and organizations in Florida have signed up with the state to register voters, including an NAACP chapter at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. Cate said these groups have always had to register but now must follow several new requirements, such as putting the organization's information on each application it collects and filing monthly reports with the state.
Two lawsuits over the new law are pending in the courts, including a challenge to the restrictions on community groups, filed by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice with the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and Florida Public Interest Research Group. The League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have shut down their Florida voter registration operations because of the law.
Still, having an elections official present while she registered to vote made the process more authentic, Spanish Rriver senior Lexi Weiss said
"It seems more official, more legitimate this way," Weiss said.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6536
Register to vote
A new law adds several restrictions to the voter registration process. Although voters can register through several community groups in Palm Beach County, contact the Supervisor of Elections for more information.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections: Go to pbcelections.org, call 561-656-6200 or email email@example.com
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