Von Spakovsky's World: Teacher Faces Fines For Effort To Register Students To Vote

In a 1980 speech to evangelical leaders, conservative movement icon Paul Weyrich explained that Christians' “goo-goo” efforts to get every American to vote were flawed because “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” He brazenly declared, “I don't want everybody to vote.”

Of course, this sort of blatant subjugation of democratic principles below the idol of bare-knuckled partisanship doesn't really play well in public. Over the past few decades, Weyrich's heirs have cloaked their partisan push for voter suppression -- seeking to ensure that “voting populace goes down” so that conservative “leverage in the elections... goes up” -- in the rhetoric of protecting voter rights.

In one recent example, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a former Bush appointee to the Federal Elections Commission, took to National Review Online to claim that new restrictions on voter registration drives recently established in Florida are “intended to guarantee the enfranchisement of voters.”

Von Spakovsky lauded the state's new restrictions requiring organizations to register with the state and turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours of completion. He added of the second law: “I fail to understand how that requirement will keep people from registering to vote.”

The answer, of course, is becoming quite clear: The requirements will keep people from registering because they are so onerous that they discourage organizations from doing registration drives in the first place. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports:

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.

Cicciarelli, you see, didn't register with the state before beginning her registration drive, and failed to turn in the forms within 48 hours. And so, for the crime of improperly trying to get her students involved in the democratic process, she faces fines.

She told the paper that she had wanted to pass the “big thrill” she had felt after first registering to vote on to her students, saying, “I just want them to be participating in our democracy...The more participation we have, the stronger our democracy will be.”

Unfortunately, following in Weyrich's footsteps, conservatives like von Spakovsky disagree.

Cicciarelli isn't the only one to be deterred from registering voters. After the Florida law was first passed, the Florida League of Women Voters dropped their decades-long nonpartisan effort to register voters. Deirdre MacNabb, the group's president, explained to TPM:

“When we looked at the laws, we felt that this would put our thousands of volunteers across the state who have registered voters for 70 years in Florida at a grave disadvantage,” MacNabb said.

Volunteers would have to have “a secretary on one hand and a lawyer on the other hand as they registered voters,” MacNabb said.

“We did not feel that we as an organization could ask our volunteers to undergo that kind of vague, restrictive and punitive restriction which the legislature has tried to impose,” MacNabb said.

Why does the right wing want to shut down voter registration drives? If you ask them, they will fearmonger over trumped-up claims of voter fraud and warn of the dangers of (the now-defunct) ACORN (even while acknowledging, in von Spakovsky's case, that there is no “massive fraud in American elections”). But an analysis of the data points to the Weyrich principle at work: the reduction in voter registration drives will disproportionately affect young people, the poor, and racial minorities, who tend to be more progressive.

According to a recent report from the Brennan Center:

Voter registration drives have become an increasingly important registration method in the past decade, especially for low-income citizens, students, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and people with disabilities. For example, in the 2004 general election, large-scale voter registration drives report assisting almost 10 million citizens to register to vote, contributing to a surge in new registrations and increased turnout in that election. In one county in Florida alone, voter registration organizations were responsible for registering 62.7% of all newly registered voters. Nationally, Census data show that Hispanic and African-American voters are approximately twice as likely to register to vote through a voter registration drive as white voters.

Voting rights advocates point to increased voter registration rates, especially among minority, low-income, and younger citizens, as a positive effect of voter registration drives and a reason to expand them.