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Connecticut and Florida Change Felon Disenfranchisement Laws

Connecticut and Florida take different approaches as they address the disenfranchisement of convicted felons. In Connecticut, state lawmakers, after intense debate and much legislative maneuvering, passed a bill that gives back the right to vote to convicted felons on probation. In a much different process, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the state's elected Cabinet made a rule change making it easier for some felons to regain their right to vote. In both states, advocates of suffrage for felons say that the disenfranchisement of felons affects communities of color and poor people disproportionately.

"As long as a citizen is subject to the pain of taxes, it would follow that they should have a right to vote," said Connecticut State Senator Eric D. Coleman, DBloomfield.

On May 18, 2001, Connecticut's Governor John Rowland signed into law the bill that gives convicted felons released on probation the right to vote for the first time in state history. The measure, which goes into effect in January 2002, will return the right to vote to some 37,000-felony probationers. Coleman said, "Entire communities are disenfranchised" under the existing law.

Senator Toni N. Harp, DNew Haven, said enforcement of the existing law is confused and haphazard. The current law prohibits felons on probation from voting until they have completed their probations. Harp went on to say there "is no standardized system statewide" to restore those rights, but the new legislation will correct that problem.

Opponents of the legislation, many of whom are Republican state lawmakers, see the disenfranchisement of felons as an appropriate part of their punishment. Though not often publicly stated, most Republicans assume that giving the right to vote to felons will benefit Democrats, since people of color and poor people traditionally vote for Democrats.

"We're not just giving back voting rights," said State Senator John McKinney, RFairfield, "but also lessening the punishment."

As reported in the April 26, 2001, New Haven Register , two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while they are still serving their prison terms, and 21 states permit felons to vote while on probation.

In comparison to Connecticut's forward-looking legislative measure, Florida's rule change was both modest and more restrictive. Although Governor Bush and the Florida Cabinet passed the rules unanimously, the new rules only affect people who have served their time, are considered non-violent, and are not classified as habitual offenders. Critics of the State's new rules say they don't go far enough, and that Florida should give all felons who have served their time the right to vote automatically, which is how it works in most other states.

Florida is one of just nine states that prohibit all felons who have served their time from voting. The policy has been under attack ever since the national elections of 2000. During the closest presidential election in American history, Florida's election supervisors purged a list of felons from voting rolls, only to discover that many people, most of whom were African Americans, were inaccurately labeled as felons and prevented from voting. Some supervisors found the list so untrustworthy that they refused to use it. Florida became the focal point of the most hotly contested presidential race in history when these and other ballot irregularities surfaced.

Florida's new rules allow selected felons to get their civil rights restored, including their voting rights, without having to go to a hearing of the state's Executive Board of Clemency, a cumbersome and lengthy process. Although the change should speed up the process, the Clemency Board, made up of the Governor and Cabinet, still must sign off on the list of felons who will qualify to have their civil rights restored.

"It is unclear how many felons might be affected by the new policy. From 1998 to 2000, there were 36,450 people released from Florida prisons, and 3,484 got their civil rights restored," said Bush spokesperson Katie Baur. According to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.based non-profit group, Florida is home to the largest group of disenfranchised felons in the country, some 400,000 people. "A large percentage don't even apply," Baur said.

Two lawsuits, one state and one federal, are pending against Florida, charging that the state hasn't done what it is required to help felons restore their voting rights. The NAACP is also suing over the flawed voter list used during the 2000 elections because it effectively disenfranchised black voters.

"When felons are released from prison, Florida continues to make them second-class citizens," said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, which is one of the groups suing the state. "It affects their ability to make a living, to get certain licenses and vote. They pay taxes, but they don't get representation. The Governor and Cabinet should change this policy. We need to get in step with the rest of the nation and the rest of the world."

Earlier this year the Florida Legislature's Black Caucus tried to produce legislation which would restore all felon's voting rights, but thus far they have been unsuccessful.

Sources: New Haven Register; St. Petersburg Times.

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