Pubdate: Tue, 03 Apr 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Abby Goodnough


MIAMI -- Hinting that a remarkable turnaround in state policy was 
near, Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday that he hoped to persuade 
members of the Florida cabinet this week to end the practice of 
stripping convicted felons of their right to vote.

Florida is the most populous of three states whose constitutions 
require withdrawal of voting rights from all convicted felons, and it 
has the nation's largest number of disenfranchised former offenders. 
The other two states are Kentucky and Virginia.

Felons in Florida who have served their prison and probation time can 
apply to have their voting rights reinstated, but the process can be 
time consuming and complex. Only a few hundred have their rights 
restored each year in Florida, where the American Civil Liberties 
Union says 950,000 remain disenfranchised.

Mr. Crist, a Republican, said that to win the support of some cabinet 
members, he might require former felons to pay whatever restitution 
they owe to victims before regaining their rights. Some civil rights 
groups, including the A.C.L.U., oppose such a compromise, but Mr. 
Crist said he had little choice.

"I want to do the doable," he told reporters in Tallahassee. "I'm 
pushing as hard as I can to get as much as I can, but there's a point 
beyond which I cannot go."

Only a constitutional amendment could formally end the ban, but under 
state law, the governor and cabinet -- who also make up the state 
clemency board -- could grant blanket clemency to everyone who 
completes their sentence. Mr. Crist needs two of the three cabinet 
members to sign off on the plan.

Alex Sink, a Democrat who is the state's chief financial officer, has 
said she supported modifying the ban. But Charles Bronson, the 
state's agriculture secretary, and William McCollum, its attorney 
general, Republicans, have opposed it.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush was adamantly against ending the ban, even 
though it contributed to problems in the 2000 presidential election. 
An unknown number of legal voters were removed from the rolls leading 
up to the election, after a company working for the state mistakenly 
identified the voters as felons. At the same time, some counties 
allowed felons to vote or turned away legitimate voters as suspected felons.

"I believe in my heart that everybody deserves a second chance," Mr. 
Crist said. "And I'm hopeful that maybe later this week we'll have an 
opportunity to restore civil rights for Floridians and give them that 
right to vote."

Howard Simon, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Florida, said he 
thought Mr. Crist was focused on persuading Mr. Bronson to soften his 
stance. He said Mr. Bronson wanted a list of exceptions, of violent 
criminals who would not be eligible for voting rights. Mr. Crist said 
he would not grant automatic restoration to murderers and sex criminals.

Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Mr. Bronson, said Monday: 
"Commissioner Bronson continues to believe that people who commit 
violent felonies ought to be treated differently than others who do not."

Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Mr. McCollum, said he believed that 
"violent habitual offenders should not receive automatic restoration."

Mr. Simon said it made no sense to require former offenders to pay 
restitution to regain their civil rights.

"How can they be expected to pay it if the state keeps putting 
barriers in the way of allowing them to be re-employed?" he said. 
"You can put people on a payment plan, but get them back to work first."

Christine Jordan Sexton contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla., 
and Terry Aguayo from Miami.
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