Groups initiate effort to help felons regain voting rights

A Web site and hotline are set up to streamline the process for those who are eligible.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published December 7, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida civil rights organizations launched a Web site and hotline Thursday to help more than 250,000 ex-offenders regain the right to vote in time for the 2008 presidential election.

Despite new rules instituted in April by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet to streamline the restoration of civil rights for felons, roadblocks remain, the groups said.

For example, the Florida Parole Commission does not release to the public addresses of ex-offenders, thwarting advocates' efforts to locate them and help them register to vote.

The new effort is called Restore My Vote. The Web site is www.restoremyvote.com and the toll-free number is 1-877-60-RESTORE, or 1-877-607-3786.

"Voting is our voice, the guarantee of our democracy and the first road to empowerment for our communities," said Reggie Mitchell, Florida counsel for the People for the American Way Foundation. "Many newly eligible citizens have no idea their voting rights have been restored, or that they must register to vote in order to go to the polls in 2008."

To that end, the groups formally asked Crist to order that a blank voter registration form be included with the certificates of civil rights restorations, several thousand of which are mailed monthly.

Florida Parole Commission spokeswoman Jane Tillman said that could easily be accomplished. "We'll do whatever the governor and Cabinet tell us to do," Tillman said.

Tillman said there are about 110,000 pending cases of people determined eligible for one of three levels of clemency. The agency has asked for 42 more full-time employees next year, but the request is likely to be denied because of continuing revenue shortfalls that require cuts in agencies' budgets.

Joining in the Restore My Vote effort were the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an umbrella group of organizations, and two Democratic legislators, Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville and Rep. Curtis Richardson of Tallahassee.

The lawmakers will sponsor bills in 2008 to further streamline the voter registration process for ex-felons.

Despite their shared support for liberal causes, the organizers denied their larger objective was to get a Democrat in the White House in 2008. They said they had no way of knowing any ex-offender's political leanings.

"This is bigger than just partisan politics. We want to get everybody restored," Mitchell said.

The advocates again thanked Crist and the Cabinet for modernizing the creaky, Reconstruction-era rights restoration machinery, but they said the changes haven't gone far enough.

What they want, Mitchell said, is for Florida to be as aggressive in getting ex-offenders back on the voter rolls as the state used to be in preventing them from regaining a path to citizenship. "There's still a lot of work to do," said Muslima Lewis, director of the Florida ACLU's Racial Justice Project.

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the state Division of Elections said: "I respectfully disagree. The obstacle is getting your rights restored."

Michael Hargrett, 51, of Tampa, who served time for drug trafficking, got back his right to vote last summer, but it took longer than he wanted. He won clemency last March but said he didn't get his mailed certificate, proving it, until June.

"It's kind of demeaning that you have to go through all this to get your rights back," Hargrett said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.