Thousands may be denied vote in Florida

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has adopted a new policy that civil rights advocates say may prevent tens of thousands of Floridians from voting. The governor acted after a Florida appeals court ordered the state furnish more help to felons who want their voting rights restored.

A week ago, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee ruled unanimously that state prison officials must observe the law and provide newly released felons with the necessary paperwork and help to get their full civil rights back. That would include a one-page application for a formal hearing before the Florida Clemency Board–the only way about 85 percent of felons would ever regain their voting rights.

Gov. Bush, however, instead of furnishing the application, opted to scrap it completely. He announced that released felons henceforth will have to contact the Office of Executive Clemency when and if they want a hearing on restoration of their rights.

Bush claims the new policy will reduce paperwork and give the applicants the ease and aid demanded by the appeals court. Civil rights activists, however, say that decision will deny voting rights to thousands of people in a state where more than 400,000 are already barred from the polls.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute sued the state in 2001, claiming the Department of Corrections had violated the law for years by not helping released felons make application to regain their civil rights. Some changes have been made by the department, but it still refuses to give released prisoners the one-page application necessary to obtain a hearing.

Last week, civil rights groups thought they had won the battle. This week, though, they are crying foul. “You have to hand it to the governor,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Florida. “It’s a very clever legal tactic and even more clever propaganda. It’s done under the guise of trying to simplify the process and eliminate paperwork, but it just shows his true character. It’s completely disingenuous.”

Florida is one of six states that permanently remove voting rights from convicted felons. The governor and his cabinet, who compose the Florida Clemency Board, can reinstate those rights if they so choose.

Released felons can get their voting rights restored in two ways. Dependent on past crimes and other factors, they may be able to obtain restoration through a paperless process without a hearing, but few are able to do so. Those rejected must go through a more complicated investigation and hearing before the clemency board.

Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said if an application for a hearing were already on file, more people would be ready and waiting for consideration. “I think the governor thumbed his nose at the court order and showed disrespect for the rule of law,” Berg said.

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