Monday, March 31, 2008

Felons' Voting Requests Pile Up

Florida's Process
To Restore Suffrage
Illustrates Haze

March 31, 2008; Page A4

MIAMI -- Republican Gov. Charlie Crist went against his party a year ago and made it easier for felons to regain their voting rights. The process has been slow, however -- stirring controversy in a state expected to be closely fought in this fall's elections.

Florida's clemency board has restored voting rights to nearly 75,000 residents. But nearly 96,000 requests are pending, according to information through March 20. Activists say there might be an additional 400,000 people who have been rejected without explanation, making it impossible for them to be reinstated.

The fate of these votes is especially sensitive in Florida, where George W. Bush claimed the presidency by a mere 537 votes in 2000. But similar tensions are playing out across the country, with 5.3 million U.S. citizens unable to vote because of felony convictions -- including four million people who are no longer in prison, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow felons to vote while incarcerated. Thirteen others and the District of Columbia allow inmates to regain the right to vote after their release, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group. Other states limit voting based on factors including the severity of a crime, the completion of probation and the payment of fines.

Restoring the rights of all five million felons who can't vote is complicated by this patchwork system, said University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher, who noted, "There is no uniformity."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in Tennessee contending that the state's rules amount to a poll tax, a reference to the illegal restrictions imposed during the 1960s. The state requires felons to pay outstanding fines and child support before restoring their votes, something the two advocacy groups say penalizes the poor.

Richard Gooden of Alabama lost his right to vote in 2000 after a drunken-driving conviction. The secretary of state said Mr. Gooden had to appeal through the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles because the felony was considered a crime of "moral turpitude." The board refused his application, saying his crime didn't disqualify him from voting. The stalemate between the two agencies left him unable to register.

The 66-year-old was turned away from the polls in the 1960s when he couldn't recite the Alabama State Constitution by heart, part of a test designed to keep African-Americans from voting. This time, the state's Supreme Court restored his vote.

"You can be in a place where you're eligible to vote but not know you're eligible because of the complexities and disinformation," said Mr. Gooden's lawyer, Ryan Haygood, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In Florida, churches are hosting rights-restoration sessions. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group of 40 organizations, is planning a daylong rally for April 1 in Tallahassee. The state's clemency board is trying to reach out to as many people as possible to tell them of the changes. It held 17 hearings across the state and is preparing a leafleting campaign in convenience stores, churches and other well-traveled areas.

Inside the fellowship hall of the Greater Bethel AME Church in the Overtown area of Miami, more than 100 residents with criminal records listened to representatives from the state attorney and public defender offices explain how felons can register.

Those with more-serious crimes worked their way to the table staffed by the ACLU and University of Miami School of Law students. Ricky McGowan, 41 years old, spoke animatedly to one of the students while others lined up, waiting for a free chair. Mr. McGowan, a landscaper, has never voted. He lost his voting rights before he registered because at 18 he was convicted of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He asked about the process and explained that he is worried an arrest for littering a year ago will further complicate his application.

"I done things I'm not proud of, and I'm different now; I'm a man," he said outside the hall. "But I can't go back and change what I did." Mr. McGowan said he doubts his rights will be restored in time. If he can, he will vote for Sen. Barack Obama. "I like Hillary; Hillary is all right, but Barack, Barack is something different," he said.

The change in Florida was controversial from the start. Mr. Crist's initial proposal was opposed by two Republicans who were members of the executive clemency board, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Secretary of Agriculture Charles Bronson. Mr. Crist revamped the idea, limiting the scope to nonviolent offenders, and Mr. Bronson signed on. To qualify, those felons must have completed their prison term, probation and parole, if applicable, and made any payments the court orders, including child support.

Mr. McCollum, with the backing of law-enforcement organizations, continued to oppose the measure, noting that authorities already had the power to restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said he has accepted the changes and now is focusing on better preparing inmates for their release.

The new process is simpler than the old method, but some want it to be faster still. It is "unnecessarily complicated, unnecessarily bureaucratic and unnecessarily slow," said Muslima Lewis, director of ACLU Florida's Racial Justice Project.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative legal advocacy group, said the old system could have been improved, but the new system goes too far. Each case should be reviewed, he said. "To assume someone has turned over a new leaf because they've walked out of prison doesn't make sense."

Write to Gary Fields at gary.fields@wsj.com1

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