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Voting right restored, but they don't know it

Florida restored civil rights to Coleman Felts, 67, of Miami on May 23, but the former construction worker had no idea.

"I really want to vote this year, it's an important year," said Felts, a potential Barack Obama supporter who lost civil rights 20 years ago after felony convictions.

Felts is one of tens of thousands of former felons now eligible to vote under Florida's slimmed down process for restoring civil rights for nonviolent offenders. But the cumbersome bureaucracy lags far behind in letting the potential voters know.

The lag suggests the full impact of Gov. Charlie Crist's bold push to reverse a history of disenfranchisement won't be seen this November.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis found that while some 88,000 former nonviolent felons are newly eligible to cast a ballot for the first time in this presidential election, less than 10 percent, or roughly 8,200, were registered to vote as of the end of May.

The move to restore rights was originally expected to impact between 250,000 and 300,000 offenders. In reality, the number turns out to be closer to 115,000, once all the certificates get signed by the clemency board, according to the Florida Parole Commission.

Of those, at least 30,000 are African-American, a number that could be of greater significance in a year when an African-American candidate will be on the ballot for the first time as the nominee of a major party.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, was particularly effective throughout the primary season of drawing large numbers of black voters.

He's one of the reasons Felts is eager to get politically involved. Felts is a disabled veteran who lost his civil rights for firing a gun into a home and trespassing.

Felts said he hasn't received any notice from the state about the change in status that also allows him to hold public office and serve on juries. In a sign of how badly the system sometimes works, Felts said he voted in the 2004 presidential election, though doing so would have been illegal. He has since fallen off the county's voting rolls.

Felts' rights were restored after a decade's worth of controversy about Jim Crow-era laws that banned felons from voting. The Florida Board of Executive Clemency returned basic civil rights to nonviolent offenders who have done their time and paid restitution.

More than half of the ex-offenders whose rights have been restored are registered as Democrats, about 4,500, according to a Times analysis. There are 1,700 registered as Republicans and 1,500 registered with no party affiliation.

But those involved in trying to alert ex-offenders to their new voting rights say thousands of people just don't know they can vote.

"The governor has done a great thing, but the question is how effective has this been," said state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who has run seminars this summer on restoration of rights. "What are some of the barriers that we need to knock down to get people their rights back?"

The state has faced major problems notifying many ex-offenders of their new rights. Law enforcement and corrections agencies provided the Parole Commission with the most current addresses available for ex-offenders, but many had moved. Many restoration certificates have been returned to the commission as undeliverable.

The state compared the list of eligible former felons to a Social Security database to purge those who had died. Nonetheless, the Times found at least six dead felons who had recently earned automatic restoration of rights.

Positions are cut

Also, the Parole Commission has a man-power problem. While its workload increased with the recent civil rights changes, budget cuts eliminated 24 positions, said commission spokeswoman Jane Tillman. The Legislature slashed the commission's funding by $2-million, or 20 percent this year, far more than any other criminal justice agency.

Last year, the agency received $50,000 to run seminars for outreach to teach ex-offenders about restoration of rights, but staffers also volunteered free time on weekends because the money didn't go far enough, Tillman said.

The agency printed posters touting a toll-free hotline where ex-offenders could call for more information, which was supposed to be answered by two multilingual contract staffers. But the agency lost funding last year. Now the help-line phone just rings, or gets answered along with all the other calls that come into the agency.

"It'll be answered eventually," Tillman said. "For a little agency, we've got huge issues, and it affects people's ability to get a job and be productive citizens."

In June, Crist announced that 115,000 felons would be able to vote this November, even though restoration certificates weren't quite signed and ready for 25,000 of them. Tillman said the commission is working to get the certificates processed and delivered.

She said she's sure they will be ready in time for the election. Voters have until July 28 to register in time for the Aug. 26 primary.

But some advocates for ex-felons are fed up with the problems.

"There are just too many impediments, and it doesn't seem like easy solutions are being adopted," said Florida ACLU attorney Muslima Lewis, who runs the group's efforts on restoration of rights.

For example, the Florida ACLU asked Crist in a letter to order the Parole Commission to include voter registration cards with restoration of rights certificates mailed to felons. They were told it couldn't happen, Lewis said.

Both the ACLU and the left-leaning People for the American Way Foundation have run civil rights seminars, and have created Web sites and toll-free numbers to help direct ex-offenders.

"We're looking for a needle in a haystack," said Sharon Lettman with People for the American Way Foundation. "At the end of the day, if they haven't seen our public service announcement on television or if they haven't seen a newspaper, they may not find out they can vote."

Not all of the registration problems rely on getting the word out. Some former felons, like 33-year-old Brent Deese of Sanford, just haven't gotten around to registering to vote. He got his certificate in April. And he knows he needs to register to cast his vote. He said he's leaning toward Obama this fall.

"I've just been really busy," said Deese, who works for UPS and was convicted of a drug charge, although he maintains his innocence. "I know I've got to do it soon."

About this story

The St. Petersburg Times analyzed Florida Parole Commission records for nonviolent former felons who had civil rights restored between April 5, 2007, and June 9. The Times compared that information with voter registration records obtained from the Secretary of State's Office as of May 30. The Times compared records based on exact matches of first name, last name, date of birth and middle initials. If full middle names clearly didn't match, they were eliminated.

Voting right restored, but they don't know it 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:37pm]
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