Florida will make it easier for ex-convicts to vote

Aaron Deslatte and Vicki McClure | Sentinel Staff Writers
August 28, 2008
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist ordered Florida's parole agencies Wednesday to make more information -- including voter-registration forms -- available to ex-convicts to enable them to exercise their newly restored civil rights.

The governor said the order would help more ex-convicts benefit from policy changes made last year to speed up the cumbersome rights-restoration process for individuals found guilty of nonviolent felonies.

Crist's announcement came two days after the Orlando Sentinel reported that, though 112,000 ex-convicts have had their rights "automatically" restored in the past year, only about 9,000 -- less than 8 percent -- had registered to vote through July.

Another 8,500 may have registered, but incomplete state data make identification less certain.

Part of the problem, the Sentinel reported: Thousands of former felons, including many who had been released from prison years ago, never got notices their rights had been restored because the state sent them to the wrong addresses.

In addition, Crist's office declined a request by civil-rights groups in December to include a voter-registration application when the state mails out rights-restoration certificates to a backlogged list of about 60,000 felons. Roughly 3,500 convicts are released from prison each month.

And some elections supervisors had been frustrated that they had no way to access a database of those who have regained their rights.

Crist's executive order would:

*Require a voter-registration application to be included in every Restoration of Civil Rights Certificate mailed from the Parole Commission.

*Make publicly accessible a redesigned Florida Parole Commission Web site to let felons look up and print a copy of their restoration certificate.

*Provide on the Web site a direct link to the Division of Elections' voter-registration Web site.

"I believe that government should explore every opportunity to ease the notification process and provide as much information about restoration of civil rights," Crist said in a statement. "The changes made today will allow ex-offenders to immediately register to vote and participate in the democratic process."

Civil-rights groups generally applauded the order, which came as voter rolls reopened for registration before the Nov. 4 general election.

Still, had the governor acted sooner, "thousands more Floridians would have benefited," said Muslima Lewis, a lawyer and director of the Racial Justice and Voting Rights Projects for the ACLU in Miami.

Until last year, Florida was one of only three states that did not automatically restore a felon's right to vote, hold job licenses, serve on juries and other rights after serving prison time. The policy dated to Reconstruction and was condemned for years by civil-rights groups who said it continued to punish convicts after they had served their time.

James Perry, who lost his voting rights about a decade ago for skipping out on a hotel bill and threatening Daytona Beach police, welcomed the news.

He has been trying to get those rights back for four years, calling the Florida Parole Commission about once every three months to check on his status.

So far, nothing. The 57-year-old now hopes to have better luck with the state's new Web site, www.FLrestoremyrights.com, which includes a form he can fill out in case the state has lost his paperwork.

"I was wrong, but it has been 10 years. I pay my taxes. I stay out of trouble," Perry said. "I've done my time."

Aaron Deslatte, who reported from Tallahassee, can be reached at adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com or 850-222-5564. Vicki McClure can be reached at 407-420-5540 or vmcclure@orlandosentinel.com.

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