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ACLU: Florida Clemency System Denies Hundreds of Thousands Right to Vote

March 13, 2009

As the Governor met with the clemency board to restore voting rights to some people released from prison, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition held rallies, screened movies and gave speeches across the state to bring attention to a system they say is denying many Floridians the right to vote. A new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU), which is part of the coalition, found that the system is bogged down in bureaucracy, confusion, and backlog.

Muslima Lewis, the report's author, says more than half of the election officials surveyed do not understand who is eligible or the rules for voter restoration. Most other states provide automatic restoration of voting rights upon release, but in Florida they must first make restitution and then apply; a process that often takes years, she says.

"It is a crisis when hundreds of thousands of Florida citizens, who have completed their sentence, are locked out of the voting process. It is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement."

All Florida citizens deserve to have their voices heard, once they’ve paid their debt to society, says Lewis.

"Democracy is strengthened by expanding the vote to include all eligible citizens, and that eligibility should not be restricted."

Governor Crist issued an executive order in 2007 that made it easier for non-violent offenders to have their rights restored. Since then, 138,000 people have been returned to the voter rolls compared to 83,000 during the previous 12 years.

Kevin Aplin, vice president of the ACLU's Brevard Chapter, says that is not enough. Their report recommends making restoration of voting rights automatic, instead of conditional, and allowing people to immediately qualify for occupational licenses to work.

"Having somebody prevented from seeking employment, and delaying their right to vote causes them to be unable to support their family or feel like a whole member of the community. That increases the likelihood they might re-offend."

The Governor and the Clemency Board could vote to make voting rights restoration automatic immediately, or the legislature could vote on a constitutional amendment.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL