NEW SMYRNA BEACH — The teacher who heads up New Smyrna Beach High School’s student government association could face thousands of dollars in fines. Her transgression? Helping students register to vote.
Prepping 17-year-olds for the privileges and responsibilities of voting in a democracy is nothing new for civics teachers, but when Jill Cicciarelli organized a drive at the start of the school year to get students pre-registered, she ran afoul of Florida’s new and controversial election law.
Among other things, the new rules require that third parties who sign up new voters register with the state and that they submit applications within 48 hours. The law also reduces the time for early voting from 14 days to eight and requires voters who want to give a new address at the polls to use a provisional ballot.
Republican lawmakers who backed the rules said they were necessary to reduce voter fraud. Critics — including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who testified before a congressional committee — said the law would suppress voter participation.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to block implementation of the law. The most controversial elements are under review in federal court before they can be implemented in five counties.
Fear of violating the new rules prompted the League of Women Voters to suspend voter registration efforts in Florida. Local political activists in both parties have been similarly stymied, Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall said.
“It’s bizarre,” McFall said of the law. “I haven’t found one person who likes this law.”
When McFall heard the story of the New Smyrna Beach teacher at a staff meeting this month — and realized her office would have to report the incident to the state as a potential violation — she had a sick feeling in her stomach.
“This isn’t someone who was going to commit fraud,” McFall said. “She was doing a good thing. New Smyrna Beach High School was doing a good thing.”
But Cicciarelli hadn’t registered with the state before beginning the registration drive. And she didn’t submit the forms to the elections office on time.
In the absence of willful fraud or someone’s voting rights being denied, it seems unlikely she would face a fine. Since the law took effect in July, the state Division of Elections has issued only warnings. No incident has been turned over to the attorney general’s office for enforcement, said Chris Cate, a spokesman with the secretary of state’s office.
“We’ll review it, go over the facts and decide whether to forward it,” Cate said.
Cicciarelli, who grew up in Port Orange and has been teaching at the school about six years, remembers when she first registered in 1994 while a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Volunteers staffing a table for the League of Women Voters helped her navigate a process that seemed a little intimidating to a teen-ager who’d never voted.
“It was such a big thrill to register,” she recalled, one that she looks to pass along to the students at her school.
“I just want them to be participating in our democracy,” she said. “The more participation we have, the stronger our democracy will be.”
Next year Cicciarelli said she would invite a representative from the elections office to give students an opportunity to register. Shannon Miller, a 17-year-old senior who serves as co-president of the student government association along with classmate Crystal Merrick, said she was glad she had the chance to register at school. She wonders how many of her peers will participate if the process is too formalized.
“It may discourage some students (from registering) if it’s more difficult,” she said. “We’re more apt to get involved, but (some students) won’t go to the trouble if they think it’s hard.”
Cicciarelli was on maternity leave in the spring when the Republican-led Legislature adopted the new rules, largely on party lines. Supporters said it was necessary to prevent voter fraud, though elections supervisors like McFall said they haven’t had a problem.
“I don’t see it,” she said in a telephone interview last week from her office in DeLand. “I truly don’t see it.”
But supporters of the law view it as an attempt to be proactive at a time when elections are becoming so contentious that the potential for fraud is always a threat.
“There are reasons for the law,” said state Rep. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange who voted for it. “Part of the reason is to protect people like (the students), so they know they’re being registered properly.”
It’s still easy to register to vote, Hukill added, even if it means third-party groups that want to hold registration drives might have to do some more homework in advance.
“It does point out the need for more public education,” Hukill added. “I applaud the poor teacher’s efforts to get her students involved. She just didn’t know. It just goes to show if you’re going to do something, make sure you know what the law says about it.”
For the students involved in the voter registration drive, the incident has proven an unsolicited lesson in real-life civics, New Smyrna Beach High Principal Jim Tager said.
“You’re talking about a high-energy teacher who cares about her kids, cares about her community and cares about her country,” he said. “We want to do things by the rules. We just didn’t know about these. In the end, I think this has become a good real-life lesson.”