When Voter Registration is a Crime

Is a new war on voters dismantling our democracy?

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Dawn Quarles, a high school teacher, is facing a $1,000 fine for doing something Florida has been cracking down on lately: registering students to vote. The state’s leaders want to stop registration drives that add more qualified voters to the rolls – and they are having a disturbing level of success.

Florida’s crackdown on voter registration is part of a larger national campaign against voting, which includes tough new voter ID laws in many states, rollbacks on early voting and other anti-democratic measures. Supporters of these laws argue that they are concerned with deterring fraud. But the real driving force is keeping down the number of voters – especially young, old, poor, and minority voters.

Quarles is a government teacher at Pace High School in the Florida Panhandle. Along with teaching her students about democracy, she has tried to get them to participate, by helping them register to vote. This should be a good thing. Our nation’s founders insisted that government should operate with the consent of the governed. Ideally, everyone who is eligible should be registered and vote.

In recent years, civic-minded organizations and political groups of various kinds have been conducting mass voter registration drives across Florida  – and they have been signing up a lot of voters who lean Democratic. The state’s Republican elected officials have responded with a series of laws that make voting and voter registration much harder.

(MORE: The Right’s Weird Campaign To End Elections for Senators)

The rule that Quarles is accused of violating says that people who register others to vote must submit the filled-out forms within 48 hours, down from a previous requirement of 10 days. There is a $50 fine per late form, up to a maximum of $1,000. Even if a teacher puts the forms in the mail right away, depending on mail service, he or she could miss the deadline. The 48-hour rule serves no practical purpose except creating the fear that among people and groups who register voters that they will be late – and face large fines.

It isn’t just teachers who are being intimidated. In May, after the law passed, the League of Women Voters announced that it was stopping its voter registration efforts in Florida, calling the law a “war on voters,” and declaring that “under the false pretext of reducing ‘fraud,’ Florida’s legislative leaders have instituted a law that will shut down the efforts of groups such as the League, the Boy Scouts, student groups, civic organizations, and others.” Along with the fines for submitting late forms, Florida’s new law cut the number of days of early voting from 14 to eight, and specifically eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. It is hard to see the rollback of early voting as anything but an attempt to make it harder for eligible voters to cast ballots.

The war on voters is taking different forms in different places. Some states have instituted tough new voter ID laws. Their supporters claim the purpose is deterring fraud, but the fact is that there are almost no documented cases of people showing up at the polls to vote and using a false identity. What the ID laws do, however, is make it hard for poor people, students, and the elderly – groups that are less likely than average to have driver’s licenses – to vote.

(MORE: New Voting Laws Could Reshape 2012 Electorate)

Florida’s new voting restrictions are being challenged in court as a civil rights violation as they especially affect minority voters. But the courts have a mixed record of reining in these anti-voting laws. When the Supreme Court had a chance to strike down Indiana’s strict voter ID law in 2008, it declined to, saying there was little evidence that it was keeping qualified voters from casting ballots. A week later, at least 10 retired nuns, some in their 80s and 90s, were barred from voting in Indiana’s Democratic primary because they did not have driver’s licenses.

The courts should strike down laws like Florida’s that interfere with voting rights. But better yet, legislatures should not pass them and should repeal the ones now on the books. In a democracy, candidates and political parties should prevail because they have the most support among the people – not because they have rigged the rules to favor their side.