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Civic-minded teacher snared by new election law

Dawn Quarles' fate rests in the hands of Attorney General Pam Bondi.

For eight years, Quarles has taught Advanced Placement classes in American government at Pace High School in Santa Rosa County near Pensacola.

In her spare time, she urges students to become voters.

"We have to get them registered," Quarles says of her students. "They're not going to drive themselves down to the elections office, but if they have that card, they will use it."

Registering kids to vote has landed Quarles in trouble. She could face a $1,000 fine, accused of violating a new state law that requires anyone who registers voters to submit all forms within 48 hours, or the next business day if the elections office is closed.

The Santa Rosa County elections supervisor turned in Quarles to Secretary of State Kurt Browning, notifying him that 76 forms arrived after the 48-hour deadline. Quarles says she sent them in less than 10 days afterward, as the law previously required.

The same supervisor had previously cited two other cases in which Quarles sent forms in late. (In one case, Quarles said she inadvertently forgot some forms that were left in a desk drawer over the summer.)

"I'm a repeat offender," Quarles said sarcastically.

The new election law requires Browning to report suspected violations to Bondi, which he did on Oct. 27 "for enforcement and collection of any applicable fines."

Bondi has not yet taken action. But on Monday, while Quarles was in her classroom, she got a phone call from an assistant attorney general, Blaine Winship.

"He said, 'We'd like to negotiate a settlement out of court,' " Quarles said. "I said, 'I didn't know we were going to court.' "

She has received nothing in writing from the state — no citation, nothing, she said. She has asked her state senator, Greg Evers, for help.

If the state were looking for a public symbol of a voter registration scofflaw, it could not have found a worse example than Quarles, a civic-minded teacher in one of the state's most heavily Republican counties.

Browning defends the 48-hour requirement. He says it is "not onerous" and that it can protect an unsuspecting new voter from being disenfranchised because of mishandled paperwork.

"We're not ogres," Browning said. "We certainly are not in the business of trying to catch people committing a crime. Our overall concern continues to be that individuals or groups are turning the forms in" without delay.

The League of Women Voters, which sued to block the 48-hour rule, disagrees.

"The more we hear about everyday people falling afoul of this law, the more it becomes obvious that this law is impossible to comply with," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The league suspended all voter registration efforts after the law went into effect in May, fearing that fines could bankrupt the organization.

As for Quarles, she says she'll continue to help kids become new voters:

"I know it's my responsibility. I feel a little bit like the system is working against me when I'm just trying to get kids registered to vote."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Civic-minded teacher snared by new election law 12/12/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2011 7:22pm]
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