Fla. Republicans make it harder for ex-felons to vote

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his fellow statewide elected officials agreed Wednesday to roll back rules enacted four years ago that had made it easier for many released felons in the state to regain the right to vote.

Under the new, far stricter rules, even nonviolent offenders would have to wait five years after the conclusion of their sentences to apply for the chance to have their civil rights restored.

The unanimous vote by Scott and three other elected officials, acting as the state's executive clemency board, carries national political implications. Many GOP leaders never forgave then-Gov. Charlie Crist for making restoration of civil rights almost automatic for most released felons, a change that was a key plank in Crist's political outreach to African American voters.

The 2007 rule change allowed more than 100,000 felons who had completed their sentences to be able to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election, in which Barack Obama swept Florida. Experts say many of those new voters were probably Democratic-leaning African Americans, a key target group for the Obama campaign. The state parole commission reports that 154,000 ex-convicts have had their rights restored since the 2007 rule was put in place.

The new policy was drafted by Republican state Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former county prosecutor who first raised the issue late last month. The specifics were not released publicly until just moments before Wednesday's meeting of the all-GOP board, prompting complaints from critics that criminal justice experts and advocacy groups had no time for a thorough review.

Bondi said the rule will be "fair and restore a proper respect for the rights of law-abiding citizens." She said felons deserved their rights only "after they have demonstrated a commitment to living a crime-free life."

Florida once again becomes one of a handful of states, along with Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa, in which freed felons are required to apply for restored rights.

Florida's rule on felons is also now the country's "most restrictive," according to Erika Wood, director of the Right to Vote project at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, which opposed the rule change.

Public comment was limited at Wednesday's meeting, with black lawmakers, civil rights leaders and a county elections official decrying the change as an unfair reinstatement of a rule first created during Reconstruction as a way to prevent former slaves from joining society.

Opponents noted that more than one in 10 voting-age African Americans in Florida lack eligibility to vote.

"Just as troubling as what they did is how they did it - in secret, without advice or debate, and with unseemly haste," said Howard Simon, director of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several prosecutors and law enforcement officials backed the change, saying felons needed to prove their commitment to living crime-free.

Before 2007, released felons in Florida were forced to apply and, in many cases, wait years for a clemency-board hearing for a chance to have their rights restored and gain the ability to vote or obtain occupational licenses.

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