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Future Teachers Stand Strong

Against Voter Suppression Tactics

Studying to be a teacher, Natalie Passarelli carries a 20-hour course load, works part time, wonders where she’ll be accepted for her master’s degree in secondary education, and worries how she’ll pay her student loans.

By Felix Perez

With her schedule, it would be easy to understand if Passarelli (pictured left), a junior at Ohio State University and chair of the Ohio Student Education Association, didn’t have time for much else, let alone being engaged in the political issues that affect her generation.

“The stereotypical view of college students is that they don’t care and aren’t current on politics,” said Passarelli, crisscrossing the leafy Columbus campus between classes. “In fact, college students are a lot more ready to listen, even if they are not fully aware of what’s going on. They’re willing to hear both sides.”

The eyes of the nation often settle squarely on Ohio during times of political tumult. The Buckeye state enjoys legendary status as the ultimate presidential battleground state, and this past November, its residents resoundingly defeated Senate Bill 5, commonly known as SB 5, which stripped teachers, police officers, and other public-sector workers of their right to negotiate for reasonable wages and benefits and have a voice in their workplace. 

Ohio will be ground zero once again this November.

Voters there will seek to repeal a law passed by a group of radical state legislators and Gov. John Kasich that limits access to voting. The law, House Bill 194, or  HB 194, shortens the early and absentee voting period as well as voting hours. It eliminates Sunday voting and removes the current requirement that poll workers inform voters if they are in the wrong precinct.

The law was put on hold after Passarelli, thousands of other college students, educators, members of the faith community, mothers, construction workers, community organizers, and voters of every stripe collected more than 300,000 signatures in just six weeks to place the law on the ballot.

Daniel Rajaiah (pictured right), a junior at Ohio’s University of Dayton, was one of those signature gatherers—against both HB 194 and SB 5.

Rajaiah doesn’t mince words when describing the changes to the state’s voting law sought by “far-right legislators.” He said, “It’s an absolutely ludicrous idea” meant to “disenfranchise college students,” among others.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Rajaiah, a political science major. “If you ask the average Republican, Democrat, or Independent (voter), they’ll say we need to make it easier so more people vote, not less.”

Even without the recent wave of restrictive voting measures, fewer people are exercising their right-to-vote. Over the past 50 years, national voter turnout in federal elections has declined steadily, from 63 percent in 1960 to 55 percent in 2004 (the 57 percent rate in 2008 can be attributed to the excitement generated by President Obama, especially among voters ages 18 to 29). And the U.S. consistently ranks near the bottom in voter turnout when compared with other developed countries.

The issue of voter suppression is generating considerable rancor outside of Ohio. In Missouri, for example, there is a lawsuit seeking to remove from the November ballot an initiative that would allow lawmakers to establish a law requiring citizens to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. The state constitution would have to be amended for the law to take effect because the state supreme court ruled in 2006 that a similar law amounted to a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

Supporters of the photo-ID requirement argue that it is needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics of the photo-ID requirement contend that the only type of voter fraud a photo-ID requirement aims to end—lying about your identity at the polling place—is not an issue, because there have been no documented cases of this type of fraud in modern Missouri history.

In Florida, where during the past decade several elections have been decided by razor-thin—sometimes questionable—margins, most notably George W. Bush versus Al Gore in 2000, a new law places significant restrictions on voters, especially college students.

The new Florida law:

  • Requires voter registration groups to submit registration forms to county voting supervisors within 48 hours of completion, not the 10 days previously allowed. Groups that do not turn over the forms can face fines. As a result, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which accused the legislature of “reverting to Jim Crow-like tactics,” discontinued their registration activities in the state.
  • Reduces the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. Many students who are first-time voters and who have moved from out of state register to vote during that time.
  • Requires voters to update their registration if they move from one county to another. In the past, voters could change their address at the polls, even on Election Day.
  • Requires voters to cast provisional ballots if they move across county lines and fail to change their address before an election. Previously, voters could notify poll workers that they had moved and still see their vote counted that day. This provision would disproportionately affect college students, who move frequently.
  • One person ensnared by Florida’s voter law is Jill Cicciarelli, an NEA member who teaches civics at New Smyrna Beach High School.
  • A six-year teacher and the faculty adviser to her school’s student government association, Cicciarelli ran afoul of the law when she organized a drive in September to help her 17-year-old seniors with the paperwork to preregister to vote, as she has done every year. She’d been on maternity leave when the state legislature passed the law and wasn’t aware of the new provisions. Because she hadn’t registered with the state before beginning the registration drive and didn’t submit the forms to the elections office on time, she faced thousands of dollars in fines.

State Republican Representative Dorothy Hukill, who voted for the law, was quoted as praising “the poor teacher’s” initiative. “It just goes to show if you’re going to do something, make sure you know what the law says about it.”

Hukill and other Florida Republican state lawmakers argue that the law will curb voter fraud. Yet many student groups across the state view the law as a politically motivated restraint designed to suppress the large number of students who voted for the Democratic ticket in 2008. The numbers are on their side. The Florida Department of State referred just 31 cases of alleged voter fraud to the Department of Law Enforcement in the past three years.

Ohio, Missouri, and Florida are not outliers in what is a disturbing national trend.

The Brennan Center for Justice, in an October 2011 report, cautioned that 5 million voters— more than decided the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections—could be affected by what it describes as an effort by Republican state legislatures and governors to shift fundamentally the electoral landscape and skew the 2012 elections in pivotal swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Virginia.

The Brennan Center study concluded that 19 recently passed voting laws in 14 states could lead to “significant electoral impact.”

“What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group Advancement Project, in a blockbuster investigative article published in Rolling Stone in August 2011. The article connects the dots of what it calls an “unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign” designed to impede the voting activities of certain groups.

This is how former President Bill Clinton described to a group of college students the all-out push by partisan lawmakers: “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

The unparalleled level of activity in states has drawn the attention of the nation’s lead agency charged with protecting voting rights.

In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) set a record last year with more than 100 investigations into possible voting rights discrimination.      

One such investigation led to the department’s rejection in December of a new South Carolina law that requires voters to present a photo ID when they go to the polls. It was the first time in nearly two decades the Justice Department had reached such a conclusion about a voter-ID law. Texas decided to take its new voter-ID requirement to a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., after the DOJ raised questions about its affect on certain groups of voters.

“The reality is that in jurisdictions across the country—both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common—and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history,” Holder said at an appearance in Cincinnati.

Proponents of voter-ID requirements argue that presenting a photo ID is not an unreasonable or unjustifiable requirement.

In response, voting rights advocates say that if the laws were actually about having voters prove who they are, they would allow other ways to prove identity, such as an expired photo ID, utility bills, bank statements, paychecks, or an affidavit attesting that the person is who they say they are. Instead, they maintain, the photo-ID requirements deny a fundamental right unless voters can provide one of a few specific types of ID that many Americans simply don’t have.

According to the Fair Elections Legal Network:

  • Twenty percent of voters aged 18 – 29 do not have a government-issued ID.
  • More than 20 million voting-age individuals lack a government-issued photo ID.
  • One in four voting-age African Americans do not have government-issued photo ID.
  • Eighteen percent of elderly Americans do not have a current government-issued photo ID.
  • Voting-age citizens earning less than $35,000 a year are more than twice as likely not to have a government-issued ID as those who earn more than that.
  • Millions of Americans with disabilities do not have a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID.

Lawmakers who are fast-tracking the new restrictions on voting rights in state after state point out that the new photo-ID rules pose no more of an inconvenience than that encountered every day by tens of thousands of airline passengers in airports across America. The rules are necessary, they insist, to safeguard the integrity of our election system.

Perfectly reasonable, right? Yes, except when you consider that a voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit fraud. A five-year investigation conducted while George W. Bush was president resulted in 86 convictions out of nearly 200 million votes cast (a rate of 0.0000004 percent).

 And exactly who are those 86 people who sought to corrupt the political process? According to a New York Times analysis of court records and interviews with prosecutors, many appear to have filled out registration forms mistakenly, misunderstood eligibility rules, filled out more than one registration form, or were felons seemingly unaware that they cannot vote.

Back in Ohio, future teacher and NEA student member and leader Natalie Passarelli doesn’t hesitate when asked why she gets involved—whether it’s recruiting, organizing, and standing up for tomorrow’s teachers; collecting voter signatures on weekends, evenings, between classes, or during stolen moments; or turning out to vote and doing everything she can to encourage others to do the same. 

“It affects education. If I step back and am not involved in political action, I’m going to hurt myself and my students. You’re not just fighting for your rights but for your students’ rights.”


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March, 2012