TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order Wednesday making it easier for released felons to register to vote and to track the status of their civil rights.
The move builds on Crist's push, 16 months ago, to dismantle Florida's Jim Crow-era laws. But the timing — with less than six weeks before the voter registration deadline for the Nov. 4 presidential election — angered some of the very people who sought the change.
The move is also expected to draw flak from opponents, including some Republicans who fear the decision could help presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in a battleground state. A high percentage of prison inmates are African-Americans who are more likely to vote Democratic.
Public opinion on the issue is mixed. A Quinnipiac University poll in December 2006 showed 55 percent of Floridians opposed "automatic" restoration of civil rights.
Under Crist's order, the Florida Parole Commission Web site (www.FLrestoremyrights.com) will allow released felons to print out copies of their restoration certificates, and all released felons will be given voter registration forms with the certificates.
"I believe that government should explore every opportunity to ease the notification process and provide as much information (as possible) about restoration of civil rights," Crist said in a statement. "The changes made today will allow ex-offenders to immediately register to vote and participate in the democratic process."
Crist issued the order on the same day that the Orlando Sentinel editorialized that Crist's "latest empty promise" is that many released felons have been thwarted in seeking to regain their civil rights.
A July St. Petersburg Times story found that less than 10 percent of the people who have had their civil rights restored had registered to vote. Part of the problem was a cumbersome bureaucracy that lags far behind in letting the potential voters know.
Muslima Lewis, director of racial justice and voting rights projects for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called Crist's order a lost opportunity, because it comes eight months after her group asked for it. She said the effect is to greatly diminish the impact of Crist's order because so little time is left to register to vote for the Nov. 4 election, and because budget cuts have left the Florida Parole Commission with fewer employees to handle paperwork.
"It's all about the endgame of getting people on the voter rolls, and it wasn't happening," Lewis said. "The process still needs additional streamlining and reform."
Lewis said the ACLU wrote to Crist on Dec. 6 asking for the reforms included in Wednesday's order. "We're glad that Gov. Crist has basically responded to our request of early December 2007," she said.
"That's what we've been asking for. Those are great steps forward," said Reggie Mitchell, formerly of the People for the American Way Foundation, which created a Web site in December (www.restoremyvote.org) to help released felons track their rights restoration.
The Parole Commission has resisted giving released felons voter registration forms, citing the cost. But the agency also has emphasized it will do whatever Crist's office asks, which Lewis cited as a source of frustration.
Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum, said Crist's order represented "a step in the right direction." McCollum was the only Cabinet member who opposed Crist's plan to streamline the clemency process in 2007.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.