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    State makes it easier for some felons to vote

    For out-of-state felons who relocate here, Florida simplifies the burden of proof on their restored rights.

    By TIM NICKENS and CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


    Facing lawsuits and continued criticism over how felons were removed from voting rolls last year, Florida has quietly rewritten its policy to make it easier for some of them to vote.

    Now, felons who move here from states where they could vote should be able to exercise their voting rights in Florida without undergoing a lengthy appeal to the governor and Cabinet for clemency.

    Whether the change is a reversal of previous policy or merely a clarification is in dispute.

    But Clay Roberts, the director of the state Division of Elections, said Friday he plans to stop asking local elections supervisors to remove those out of state felons from the voting rolls.

    "If they've gotten their rights back and we know it's automatic, they've gotten their rights back," he said.

    That is a reversal from last year.

    Before the November election, the state distributed a list generated by a private consultant that included the names of thousands of felons whom local elections supervisors were to remove from the voter rolls. The list included names of about 3,000 felons from states that automatically restore civil rights after prison sentences or parole terms are completed.

    Some county elections supervisors used only parts of the list or ignored it after finding numerous errors. The problems came to light in the wake of the Florida recount of the presidential election, which George W. Bush ultimately won by 537 votes. The NAACP and others have filed a lawsuit against the state over the attempted purge of felons from the voter rolls.

    Florida is one of only nine states that deny felons the right to vote. But felons from states that automatically restored their civil rights found it difficult to vote in Florida if they had no paperwork to confirm their status.

    Without any paperwork, those felons had little choice but to spend time and money asking the governor and Cabinet for clemency.

    Two memos from the state's Office of Executive Clemency outline how the state has clarified its handling of those felons.

    In a Sept. 18, 2000, letter to the Division of Elections, Janet Keels of the Office of Executive Clemency stated: "Any individual whose civil rights were restored automatically by statute in the state of conviction, and does not have a written certificate or order, would be required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the State of Florida."

    In a second letter dated Feb. 23, Keels acknowledged "some confusion." She indicated that felons from states that automatically restored their rights but who had no paperwork to prove it had another option besides pursuing clemency.

    They could just call her office for help.

    "My office will attempt to confirm the individual's claim by contacting the state that assertedly restored the individual's rights," Keels wrote. "If possession of rights is confirmed, the individual does not need to apply for restoration of civil rights in Florida. My office will issue a letter to that effect to the individual. Please accept that letter as proof of possession of civil rights."

    Roberts, who reports to Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said the difference in the two letters is clear.

    "They totally reversed themselves," he said of the Office of Clemency, which reports to the governor and Cabinet.

    Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections David Leahy agreed.

    "That's totally different from our understanding," he said of the second letter.

    But Keels maintained the February letter "reiterates our current policy." She said in an interview that her office helped felons from other states straighten out their status before the 2000 election.

    "It's always been our policy to get information from other states if we can get it," she said.

    Last year, the list of felons compiled by the private consultant included nearly 4,000 felons from 10 states: Ohio, Texas, Connecticut, South Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington. But only Kentucky and Virginia had laws like Florida's that prevented felons from voting.

    Nearly 3,000 of the out-of-state felons came from the other states which automatically restored voting rights after prison sentences or parole was completed. How many of those felons were removed from the voter rolls in each county is unknown.

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    From the Times state desk