Friday, April 13, 2007

Florida governor breaks ranks on felon voting rights

By DeWayne Wickham

A great sea change in American politics, the kind of enlightened leadership that could end the intransigence of the ideological left and right, may have just occurred.

If you missed this political tsunami, that could be because its epicenter was in Tallahassee, Fla., not the District of Columbia. It was foisted upon us by a guy named Charlie Crist, not Barack Obama.

Obama, a Democratic senator, is the darling of those who are looking to the current field of presidential candidates to produce someone who can end this nation's political self-flagellation.

But it is Crist, Florida's Republican governor, who is leading the way toward this promised land.

Last week, Crist pushed through a change to that state's practice of denying former felons the right to vote, serve on juries and obtain state-issued licenses. After some compromising, he got two of his three colleagues on the board of executive clemency to approve a new policy that allows most felons to automatically regain these rights after serving their sentence and paying court-ordered restitution. Convicted murderers, sexual predators and people classified as violent career criminals still will have to undergo a protracted process before they can vote again.

Takes different path

When Crist took office earlier this year, Florida was one of three states (including Kentucky and Virginia) that did not automatically restore an ex-felon's voting rights. In pushing through the change, Crist broke with Bill McCollum, his Republican attorney general, and Jeb Bush, his GOP predecessor in the statehouse. And some say that by restoring the voting rights of ex-felons, who are disproportionately black and poor, Crist increases the number of Democrats in a state in which the outcome of elections is often razor-thin.

"I did it because it's the right thing to do," Crist told me of the change. "Political consequences are not a concern of mine. This is absolutely the right thing to do."

Crist is breaking the political mold. He is a family-values Republican who is tough on criminals (he once advocated a return to chain gangs). But he's also a Republican who has sided with Democrats in pushing to give former felons the right to vote, and in calling for the replacement of electronic voting machines with ones that will leave a paper trail.

Fifteen of the state's 67 counties now use voting machines that produce no verifiable record of the ballots cast.

A new breed?

Of course, it's possible that Crist is a political loose cannon who will self-destruct or be destroyed by those who cling to a rigid adherence to the ideology of the political right or left. But it's also possible that Florida's governor is a new breed of politician — one who puts the best interests of the people they represent over political party.

In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, Crist's job approval rating was at 73%, up from 69% the month before. That's a pretty impressive showing in a state where registered Democrats slightly outnumber registered Republicans. But rather than measure his actions in terms of how they might tilt political registrations, or offend a special-interest group, Crist thus far has appeared to be more concerned with simply doing the right thing. "Doing the right thing" is the moral high ground that most politicians try to scale in defense of their actions. But too often that claim proves to be a dodge that's meant to cover up a capitulation to their party's prevailing ideology. That doesn't appear to be the case with Crist.

While Obama is the fresh face of politics on the national level, like all of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, he doesn't run anything but his mouth while in Congress. Before he can put most of his ideas into action, he needs to win his party's nomination and next year's presidential election.
Crist, the chief executive of the nation's fourth largest state, is already showing signs that he might be capable of putting this nation on a better political path.

DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.

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