Reviving debate over restoring felons' civil rights

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Hoping to take advantage of a nationwide focus on new voting restrictions, advocates of allowing former felons to more easily gain the right to vote called Tuesday for Gov. Rick Scott and the state clemency board to reverse a decision last year making the restoration of those rights more difficult.

With little more than a month before the November general election, the groups conceded that the changes were unlikely to be approved in time for the election. But they hoped that the attention being devoted to a state-by-state battle over voting rights could help boost the restoration of rights issue.

?It?s easy to do dirt in the dark,? said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. ?It?s harder to keep doing dirt in the light.?

The clemency board, which consists of Scott and the Cabinet, voted in early 2011 to reverse a policy change four years earlier allowing felons who had completed their sentences and any other requirements of the criminal justice system to more easily gain the right to vote.

The new rules require offenders to wait between five and seven years after completing their obligations to apply for their rights to be restored.

Though Attorney General Pam Bondi was also a key supporter of the change, much of the fire at a Tuesday news conference was focused on Scott.

?It should be unconscionable for all of us as citizens for a governor to turn back the clock on an entire group of citizens who, if they lived somewhere else, would be able to vote,? Jealous said.

Supporters of the restoration of civil rights said making it more difficult for felons to vote can actually make it harder for the offenders to rejoin society.

?What people don?t realize or fail to realize is once a person decides that they want to register to vote, they want to go down and make their voice be heard, that is part and parcel of being rehabilitated,? said Charles Dutton, an actor who spent years in prison for violent crimes.

As part of the effort to draw attention to the issue, the NAACP plans to have mobile billboards deployed to Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa -- states that have some of the more difficult processes for the restoration of rights. Many of those rules, originally rooted in post-Civil War movements to restrict the political power of freed slaves, have since become ways of suppressing the black vote in order to hold down Democratic votes, opponents argue.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said the clemency board?s decision was aimed at making it more difficult for President Barack Obama to win re-election this year. Republicans hold every seat on the clemency board.

?They saw the numbers and they saw the trend among ex-felons to vote Democratic,? Joyner said of Scott and Bondi.

Scott?s office didn?t appear to be backing down.

?Gov. Scott believes that for convicted felons to re-enter civic society, they must demonstrate a commitment to remaining crime-free as well as a willingness to request to have their rights restored,? spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email.

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