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In the Land of the Hanging chad, a move for felons' voting rights

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) MIAMI — Debbie Hardy admits she has made some big mistakes. She got hooked on drugs, had nine children out of wedlock and lost custody of them, and she spent six months in jail on a felony charge after getting into a fight with her boyfriend.

Nine years ago, Hardy decided she had had enough. She got off drugs and helped her older sister, Catherine Garvin, do the same. Now 40, Hardy is a manager at Burger King and is caring for two of her oldest children, one of whom is heading to college next year with the other going into the Navy.

In most states, she would have automatically regained her civil rights after completing her jail time and probation. But Florida requires most former inmates to have a hearing before the governor in order to gain restoration of certain rights such as registering to vote and acquiring an occupational license.

"I am trying to do the right thing, but I have had this felony hanging over my head for 12 years," Hardy said. "This time, I will gladly accept my civil rights because I know what it is like to be without them. I always wanted to be a good citizen, but before, I didn't know how."

Since the 2000 election, when Florida became the battleground to determine the next president, the state has been under intense national scrutiny. Officials have overhauled the election system including replacing the controversial punch-card ballots with electronic machines. They also are re-examining laws that civil rights groups claimed led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of minorities.

As the 2004 presidential election approaches, voter disenfranchisement remains a heated issue in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republicans are determined to re-elect Bush's brother, and Democrats are eager to replace him with John Kerry.


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In a series of lawsuits, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups charge that Florida continues to operate an unfair and chaotic voting system, particularly for an estimated 600,000 felons in the state who have completed their sentences but cannot vote.

In addition, some say, the state is plagued by a flawed voter purge list. In 2000, an undetermined number of legal voters were turned away at the polls because their names inexplicably appeared on a database of felons. The state reportedly had worked to reform the list, but two weeks ago, elections officials were forced to throw it out after it was disclosed that the list shielded virtually all Hispanic felons from being purged.

In response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, a judge ruled last year that the Florida Corrections Department had failed to notify 125,000 former inmates who completed their terms between 1992 and 2001 that they could seek to have their rights restored.

Bush said that after the court-ordered review, 22,000 felons' rights were automatically restored. The governor also said that the Office of Executive Clemency had reduced its 38,000-application backlog from a year ago to 8,000. And of those, 21,000 former prisoners' rights were restored.

Florida is among seven states that ban felons from voting. Convicts in prison or who are on probation are not granted certain civil rights.

In an attempt to cut through the backlog, the state in 2001 began automatically restoring rights to people convicted of nonviolent crimes and requiring others only to fill out a form. Those convicted of crimes such as murder or child molestation still must have a hearing.

"Gov. Bush believes that rights should be restored, and he has streamlined the clemency process," said his spokesman, Jacob DePietre.

Political experts said the former prisoners, most of whom are black and presumed likely to vote Democratic, could affect the presidential election in Florida, where George Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes in 2000.

According to Chris Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, the outcome of the 2000 election would have been different had the disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote. In a 2002 study, he concluded that had 600,000 disenfranchised felons voted, Gore would have won Florida by 40,000 to 80,000 votes.

"The horrors that occurred in 2000 have not been rectified by the state of Florida and Gov. Bush. They are doing their best to keep people who have served their prison sentence from getting their civil rights restored, and it disproportionately impacts African-Americans and minorities," said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the black state legislators.

The problems, however, began long before Bush became governor, said Courtenay Strickland, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.

"Both parties are to blame for what we are experiencing," said Strickland, who directs monthly voter restoration workshops for felons. "The rules of executive clemency determine what will make the process harder or easier. Gov. Bush could eliminate that bureaucratic hurdle, and he refuses to do it."

Bush, who sits on the clemency board with three of his Cabinet members, has said he does not believe that the review system should be scrapped but believes that the restoration process should be easier.

Prior to 2001, disenfranchised felons who had outstanding court fines or had committed a wide range of crimes had to have a hearing, DePietre, Bush's spokesman, said. Now, outstanding fines and multiple felonies are not issues in determining whether a hearing will be required.

On the second Saturday of the month, dozens of people such as Debbie Hardy come to a thrift shop in Miami run by recovering addicts to take the initial step to restore their rights. In a room upstairs, law-student volunteers help them fill out forms and put together a portfolio.

But even if they qualify to have their rights restored, it could take years before they get to vote. There is a backlog of 8,000 applications, and each year the governor holds four hearings, at which about 50 cases are heard each time.

Florida law dictates that felons who have completed their sentences are supposed to be handed forms requesting the restoration of their civil rights and be assisted in filling it out before leaving prison.

Since 2001, the Corrections Department has been electronically submitting a list of pending releases to the clemency office. Last week, an appellate court ruled that this method was inadequate and ordered the department to help people submit the forms.

"We developed a more streamlined process to provide the information to the clemency office. Now it seems like we might be going backward a little bit," said Corrections Department spokesman Sterling Ivey. "The court is asking us to assist inmates to fill out a form. That is what we were doing prior to the 2000 election."

Voter disenfranchisement is a touchy issue for civil rights leaders, who compare it to Jim Crow laws, literacy tests and poll taxes that kept blacks from voting before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In 2001, the NAACP filed a lawsuit that forced Florida to better scrutinize names on its felons database. But other states, particularly in the South, have problems too.

Nationwide, more than 4 million Americans, almost half of them black men, are unable to vote because of laws that bar felons, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group in Washington.

Except for Vermont and Maine, which allow incarcerated people to vote, every state has some voting restrictions for felons. Thirty-three deny voting rights to felons on parole. But only Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska and Virginia do not automatically restore rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Illinois allows felons on probation or parole to vote.

Some laws, including Florida's, date to Reconstruction, and state rules for granting clemency vary widely.

In Mississippi, felons must file a petition before the Legislature, and lawmakers decide whose rights are restored. Last year, Alabama lawmakers passed a bill allowing some felons to bypass the clemency hearing and obtain a certificate to register to vote. However, most still require a hearing.

"The highest office in the land should have constitutional protections guaranteeing an individual's right to vote," said activist Jesse Jackson. "We have 50 separate and unequal state elections, and all of them have different voter disenfranchisement schemes.

"The civil rights days are not over. We still have unequal voting systems, which begs for a constitutional amendment to grant all Americans equal protection under the law."

Changing Florida's law would require amending the state constitution. The ACLU and other groups are gathering petitions to put an amendment on the ballot. A class-action lawsuit filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University on behalf of 600,000 released felons challenging the constitutionality of Florida's law is pending in a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, people such as Michael Davis, 28, have filed paperwork and are waiting.

"Hopefully, getting my civil rights restored can help me as well as others," said Davis, who served time for three felony drug convictions. "I am a different person now, and all I want is a chance. My past is my past. It does not define who I am today."

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