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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts

14felony_xlarge1 Striding across a sweltering strip-mall parking lot with her clipboard in hand, Monica Bell, a community field organizer in Orlando, Fla., was looking for former convicts to add to the state’s voter rolls.

Antonious Benton, a gold-toothed 22-year-old with a silver skull-shaped belt buckle, a laconic smile and a criminal record, was the first person she approached.

“I can’t vote because I got three felonies,” Mr. Benton told Ms. Bell. He had finished a six-month sentence for possession of $600 worth of crack cocaine, he said. But Ms. Bell had good news for him: The Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, changed the rules last year to restore the voting rights of about 112,000 former convicts.

“After you go to prison — you do your time and they still take all your rights away,” Mr. Benton said as he filled out a form to register. “You can’t get a job. You can’t vote. You can’t do nothing even 10 or 20 years later. You don’t feel like a citizen. You don’t even feel human.”

Felony disenfranchisement — often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests — affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups. But voter registration and advocacy groups say that recent overhauls of these Reconstruction-era laws have loosened enough in some states to make it worth the time to lobby statehouses for more liberal voting restoration processes, and to try to track down former felons in indigent neighborhoods.

“You’re talking about incredible numbers of people out there who now may have had their right to vote restored and don’t even know it,” said Reggie Mitchell, a former voter-registration worker for People for the American Way. In Florida, “we’re talking tens of thousands of people,” he said. “And in the 2000 election, in the state of Florida, 300 people made the difference.”

A loose-knit group of national organizations working to restore voting rights includes the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn (Ms. Bell’s employer); the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Two other groups, the Sentencing Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, said they had given briefings to officials for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign about how to register former felons. But the Obama campaign has been reluctant to acknowledge any concerted effort. [Mark Godsey]

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