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Restoration of Voting Rights a Mixed Bag

by David M. Reutter

Disenfranchisement of ex-felons has always been a huge issue for civil rights activists. Lately, a few victories have been obtained in the area. The question is, however, how effective have the gains been in empowering ex-felons to vote?

In Florida, the process is slow. Yet, much credit must be given to Governor Charlie Crist, who kept his campaign promise to restore the voting rights of ex-felons. While he had full intentions of restoring that right to all persons upon completing the legal obligations of their criminal conviction, his cabinet resisted that effort. The result has been restoration only to nonviolent felons.

Such a policy caused a bureaucratic quagmire that leaves ex-felons wondering if their rights to vote have been restored. Under Florida’s new policy, an ex-felon’s voting rights are automatically restored if they committed certain nonviolent offenses, have completed their sentence, and paid all restitution.

Although the restoration is termed “automatic,” the Florida Parole Commission must assure the ex-felon has met all the requirements before issuing restoration certificates. That process is back-logged by a combination of an increased workload for parole officers and a slashed budget that eliminated 24 positions.

It was expected that 250,000 to 300,000 ex-felons would have their voting rights restored under the new policy. The reality is that it only affects around 115,000. At least 88,000 former nonviolent felons are newly eligible to vote, but only about 8,200 of them were registered to vote as of May 2008.

The biggest contributor to this low rate of registration is blamed on the fact that the ex-offenders are unaware their rights have been restored. Law enforcement agencies and prison officials provide the Parole Commission with the last known address, which results in many restoration certificates being returned as undeliverable. When the ex-offenders call a toll-free hotline for information, the phone just rings because there is no staff to answer it.

“There are just too many impediments, and it doesn’t seem like easy solutions are being adopted,” said Florida ACLU attorney Muslima Lewis.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has found an easy solution. His policy requires an ex-felon to apply, and restoration is granted when it’s confirmed that a felon has completed all sentencing requirements. There is no discrimination based on the type of crime committed. In the short time he has been in office, Beshear has restored the rights of 790 felons, including eight murderers and 14 rapists.

“If even a person convicted of murder has served his time, and is off probation and parole and completed all provisions of his sentence, then he is entitled, in my opinion, to vote,” says Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP. “They start paying taxes immediately. Once they come out of the institution they are participating in society. Why not give them full participation?”

Sources: St. Petersburg Times; The Courier-Journal.

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