Chris and Robin DiFranco operate a small contracting business from a worn second-story suite in North Miami. A couple of blocks from Dixie Highway, their cream-colored building is surrounded by a hodgepodge of auto-body and machine shops. The deadbolted first-floor door opens to a long flight of bare-wood steps. Their office is homey, though, all the more so for the presence of Brat and Little Girl, an affable feline duo who have shredded a good deal of furniture. The DiFrancos' desks are nestled to one end, around the spacious room's one window and the all-important air conditioner.
Chris is a large man with a sizable gut, a round smiling face, a short white beard, and salt-and-pepper hair. The 48-year-old possesses a voice powerful enough to bend steel. Most of the time, he speaks calmly, even wryly, about his role in transporting marijuana in the 1980s, his conviction, and a two-year campaign to receive restoration of his civil rights so that he could become a licensed contractor. But on occasion, his voice rises with anger, reverberating the chests of everyone in the room.
Robin, on the other hand, is neither physically nor vocally imposing. She's a slim and youngish 46, with short, curled brunette hair. She's partial to toe rings and sports an ankle-encompassing tattoo. Her demeanor is charming and innocuous, traits that overlay and even disguise her tenacity and pragmatism. Luckily for her husband, those are the personality traits needed to surmount the bloated bureaucracy and subjectivity of rights restoration in Florida.
Chris describes his wife's prowess at burrowing through officialdom: "She dug and dug and chipped and hit until she either went under it or through it."
Robin recalls: "You feel very small in the system, that the chance of getting anything done is little."
Thousands of Florida's felons who've served their sentences and probation must follow the same arduous trail if they wish to possess basic civil rights in Florida once again. Few will succeed. Perennial legislation and two ongoing lawsuits have as yet been unsuccessful in busting the bureaucracy and mindset that keep the restoration process so complex. Gov. Jeb Bush, who with a word could clear the path, has said he does not intend to do so.
Chris sits at his desk, the air conditioner blasting away at the back of his head. He lifts a legal document. "This is the government's report from the Department of Justice that told the grand jury what [we] did," he says. "We moved some shit." He was on the bottom rung of a pot-smuggling operation that involved dozens of people who, the government estimated, moved more than 200,000 tons over many years. Chris' brother was involved, as were many of the friends he grew up with in the Miami area. "Back in the '70s, [smuggling drugs] became a big thing down here," he recalls. "It really built this town in the '70s and '80s. Anybody who grew up here knew someone who was involved in one way or another."
His indictment in 1993 stemmed from an ongoing federal investigation that began in 1985. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to import marijuana; he avoided jail time because he had no prior convictions and only a minor role in ground transportation of marijuana. The judge sentenced him to five years' probation. By June 2000, Chris was "off paper," meaning he had completed his probation and all other requirements stemming from the conviction.
Chris had received a building contractor's license in 1993 and had renewed it annually. "Financially, I wasn't doing real well, so I went to work for a contractor in South Beach for over five years as project manager," he says. "I didn't need to be licensed. I maintained [the license] for two years but didn't use it. One year when the application came, we put it on inactive status." He shakes his head: "Big mistake. Big mistake. If I had known what you have to go through to reactivate it..."
After getting off paper, he filled out an application to reinstate his contractor's license, which included a question about whether his civil rights had been taken away due to a felony. He answered honestly. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation notified him that he would not be eligible until he'd completed the clemency process.
Around that same time, he filled out a one-sheet form requesting restoration of his civil rights and sent it to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee. That office then sent it back because it didn't have a copy of a document indicating that probation was completed, a certificate that was not yet available. The DiFrancos sent it back on August 7. On August 29, the paperwork was forwarded to the Office of Clemency Administration, which is the investigative division of the Florida Parole Commission. The documents were then sent on to a regional office in western Miami-Dade County for a complete review of the case, which was the "beginning of the nightmare," Robin declares.
"It went and sat in a locked drawer," she says of the application. "It waits for a parole counselor to pull it up and start the background check." She began calling Donald Henry, the regional administrator in charge of the civil rights restoration files. "I called him once a week. When we started, our application was number 72. It sat at 72 for six months. I wasn't going to go away.
"When I started this whole thing, they said it would take five to nine months. Then it was a year, then a year to 18 months. Then over two years."
After layoffs during the summer of 2001, only one person was working on all those files, an employee who was routinely pulled off to work warrants, Robin says. "So no applications were being processed at all. They sat and sat and sat. After a year, we were number 36, I think. That's when he sent me that long application to shut me up."
That 12-page questionnaire was as inane as it was lengthy. Among the inquiries were the addresses, phone numbers, and occupations of siblings; age moved from parents' home; information on parents, including, if deceased, by what cause; children "born out of wedlock"; a complete marital history; and financial disclosures that exceeded those required for most mortgage loans.
"I'm sorry, but if your parents die, what relevancy does that have to clemency?" Robin marvels.
"I just wanted to be legal," Chris explains. "I'd put everything behind me, served my sentence, penitence, my debt to society -- whatever you want to call it. Here I am busting my butt trying to do the right thing, and they're telling me I can't."
After June 2001, the Clemency Office began using a shortened form and sent it to Chris. "We filled that out, and it sat about three months," Robin says. She continued to "pester" Henry, who finally interviewed Chris for an hour in the fall of 2001, asking about the nature of the crime, the conviction, the time on probation. Robin says Henry wanted records on all 42 co-conspirators listed along with Chris on the indictment -- if they were alive, if they were in jail, where they lived. "It was ridiculous," she groans.
She holds a dog-eared sheet of paper with scores of names and numbers scribbled upon it. "This system leads you from one person to another to another to another and another," she explains. "I'd get names of attorneys, people in the parole commission, senators' aides, names from articles in the newspaper."
Chris chimes in: "She was told by so many people during this process: 'Do not tell anybody where you got this information from. Don't let anyone know that I'm the person who told you to call this person.'" Attorneys told them that it generally cost more than $25,000 in fees for legal representation in such cases, which usually take two years. "That's just to get to the point where someone's going to make a decision where you're granted or denied," Chris says.
His application was initially denied, which meant that it had to go through a hearing before the Executive Clemency Board, whose members are the governor and his cabinet. Chris was scheduled for the June 2002 hearing, but Robin learned through her steady telephone contact with cabinet aides that he would have an "unfavorable" recommendation before the board. Robin discovered that a flag had gone up on Chris' file when no documentation was found indicating that he had completed his court-ordered drug counseling. Chris' probation officer wrote a letter appealing to common sense that pointed out that if he hadn't completed it, he wouldn't be off probation.
This one last snag, however, apparently weighed against Chris. When the DiFrancos flew to Tallahassee, rented a car, and drove to the morning hearing of the clemency board, Chris was still listed as "unfavorable" for restoration. "Once you're 'unfavorable,' it's up to you to prove yourself 'favorable,'" Robin says. Chris was 82nd in line; by the time his name was called and he was given the opportunity to speak for five minutes, he'd thrown away his prepared defense. He chose instead the path of successful applicants he'd witnessed before him: remorseful confession and a heartfelt plea for mercy. Jeb Bush granted him restoration of his civil rights.
Chris DiFranco's case is both emblematic and atypical. More than 600,000 of Florida's off-paper felons are now disenfranchised, meaning that they can't vote and in most cases cannot obtain professional licenses. DiFranco shares with all those felons the burdensome undertaking this state now requires for restoration of civil rights. But at the same time, he is among a tiny minority who have had the resources, patience, and good luck to clear all those hurdles.
"Most people wouldn't have kept as much documentation as we did," Robin DiFranco says. "But I had everything, all the indictment files, six file boxes." The DiFrancos are white and middle-class; Robin wonders how many "lower-income minorities" would have all that documentation, time, and money to obtain certified copies and to call and travel to Tallahassee. How many could talk the "right way" to bureaucrats and aides, schmoozing with the right people for the best way to proceed?
The answer is, not many. The number of restorations has fallen dramatically since the late 1980s, when a get-tough-on-crime attitude led to new rules that made the process more difficult. During 1986, 15,000 felons had rights restored; in 2000, that number was down to 927.
That decline has had a profound effect on certain Floridians. A disproportionately higher number of black felons remains disenfranchised compared to nonblack felons, according to an analysis conducted by Christopher Uggen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies the effects of felony disenfranchisement. As of the end of 2000, Florida's 167,000 off-paper, disenfranchised black felons represented 10.5 percent of the state's total black voting-age population. That percentage was 5.6 for nonblacks.
In September 2000, the Brennan Center for Justice in Manhattan sued Jeb Bush and other state officials in federal court on behalf of eight Florida felons, claiming that the state's clemency provisions violate the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Specifically, the suit charged that the disenfranchisement law violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment by discriminating against African-Americans. Further, it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1982, which prohibits states from denying or abridging the right to vote based on race or color. In February 2001, the judge granted class-action status to all the state's felons.
"We're saying, get rid of the [state constitution's] disenfranchisement provision," declares James K. Green, a West Palm Beach attorney for the plaintiffs. "At the very least, it has a disparate impact on African-Americans. Nearly twice the percentage of voting-age African-Americans are disenfranchised as white voting-age population."
The nation's zest for incarceration has mounted since the 1970s, driven in large part by the war on drugs, according to a 1999 report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies the effects of incarceration. Forty-nine percent of inmates in prison are African-American, compared with their 13 percent share of the population, the report notes. African-Americans -- who are disproportionately affected by poor education and limited employment opportunities, poverty, and blighted neighborhoods -- live in communities most heavily policed, which in turn leads to more arrests. Blacks are also less likely to receive a sentence of "adjudication withheld," meaning that a defendant can, say, complete drug counseling or community service in lieu of a felony conviction, according to Theodore Chiricos, a professor of sociology at the School of Criminology at Florida State University and an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Brennan Center's suit.
The lawsuit asserts that felon disenfranchisement came into full use in Florida soon after the Civil War, in 1868, as a way to keep newly freed slaves from voting. Congress required the state to allow black men to vote as a condition for readmission into the Union. During Florida's 1868 constitutional convention, two opposing political factions -- the Moderate and Radical Republicans -- vied for control by proposing their own versions of a constitution. The Moderates represented the interests of ex-Confederates, whose economic and political concerns included keeping freed slaves out of voting booths and elected office. The Radicals supported the political rights of freed slaves and had drafted a constitution that did not contain provisions for felon disenfranchisement.
The Moderates, however, eventually prevailed with their version of the constitution, which disqualified anyone convicted of a felony or of bribery, larceny, or an "infamous crime." Lawmakers soon adopted legislation defining what crimes would be felonies and misdemeanors. As a result, larceny involving more than $20 was a felony; a second conviction for larceny was a felony regardless of the amount. Vagrancy became a crime against chastity, morality, and decency.
Revisions to the state constitution in 1968 eliminated the mention of specific crimes, but, the lawsuit contends, there is no record that members of the Constitutional Revision Commission ever discussed the racial impact of the provision. Article VI, Section 4, now reads: "No person convicted of a felony, or adjudicated in this or any other state to be mentally incompetent, shall be qualified to vote or hold office until restoration of civil rights or removal of disability." Thus, the state's practice of automatically disqualifying felons remained unbroken.
In July 2002, Judge James King dismissed the Brennan Center's suit against Bush. King wrote that the 1968 legislature "significantly deliberated and substantively revised" the 1868 law without "racial animus," which in effect removed the original racist intent. As for the Voting Rights Act, King cited case law indicating that "evidence of disproportionate impact [on minorities] is irrelevant to the voting rights challenge." More to the point, the plaintiffs had "disenfranchised themselves by committing a felony," he concluded. The plaintiffs appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. In late November, a group of former law enforcement officers and senior Justice Department officials filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs. The supporters, who include Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney general and associate judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, contend that there is no law enforcement reason to continue disenfranchisement. Oral arguments are expected in spring 2003.
The voting rights of felons hadn't been of much concern to most Floridians until the presidential election of November 2000 highlighted the system's problems. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a few hundred votes, and it didn't take long for reporters, Democrats, and civil rights groups to scrutinize who got to vote and who didn't. Among the problems was a botched effort by the state to remove felons from the voter rolls. As described in New Times ("Felon Follies," October 31, 2002), a private company had sent the state lists of some 94,000 putatively felonious voters to be removed from the rolls in 1999 and 2000 -- lists that even the most cursory examination revealed to be full of nonfelons. These names were then sent to local elections offices. Some elections supervisors used the lists as a guide to remove voters from their rolls; others did not. The exact number of people wrongfully disenfranchised is still unknown.
No one agency is solely responsible for helping felons with restoring their rights. The Department of Corrections (DOC), the Florida Parole Commission, and the Office of Executive Clemency all have a role.
According to Jimmie Henry, chairman of the Florida Parole Commission, the DOC forwards electronically a list of names of inmates released from prison or supervision to the Florida Parole Commission. Parole examiners then do background checks and contact courts to make sure all sentencing requirements have been fulfilled. A list of felons deemed eligible for rights restoration is sent to the Executive Clemency Board, which is given 20 days to object to any name on the list. If three or more members object to a name on the list, the case is sent back to the parole commission, which then assigns it to a field office, where a full-fledged investigation commences. A final report is sent to the Executive Clemency Board, which then decides during a hearing whether to grant civil rights.
It has been less than a seamless operation. In March 2001, the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and several other civic organizations filed suit in Leon County on behalf of four felons against Michael Moore, secretary of the DOC. The suit claimed that the DOC was not abiding by a state statute requiring it to assist offenders in completing "the necessary application and other forms required for the restoration of civil rights."
Randall Berg, a Miami-based attorney who represents the plaintiffs, had first scrutinized rights restoration in the 1980s when an appeals court decision, later overturned, held that those without restored civil rights could not sue in Florida. He learned at that time that restoration was virtually automatic.
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who was governor from 1979 to 1987, recalls that streamlined process: "The restoration of rights, for which we followed the practice that I think had been followed by several governors prior to us, was that if a person served their time and any post-incarceration parole and they lived an upstanding life, they were granted their rights without a formal hearing, unless there was some unusual circumstance."
How unusual? "Quite unusual," Graham answers. "I'm sitting here trying to think. There's not a case which comes to mind. There might have been one, but I can't think of one that was not handled in essentially a paper-review process."
Graham says his understanding of the current system is "that there is a presumption against restoration, whereas the presumption had been that there would be a restoration after the individual had paid his debt to society."
Berg delved into the subject once again before the November 2000 election. "I had a number of clients telling me that they were having difficulty in getting their civil rights restored," he says, "so I started looking into it."
As part of the suit against the DOC, in June 2001 Berg deposed Janet Keels, who has worked for the Office of Executive Clemency since 1977 and as coordinator since 1988. Keels testified that restoration had been automatic back in 1977 but that it became "not quite automatic somewhere in the late '80s, when the process for allowing the [clemency] board members to object was entered into the rules."
But the critical red tape was affixed in December 1991, when specific disqualifying criteria were adopted as Rule 9a, according to Keel's testimony. Felons would be ineligible for restoration without a hearing if they had ever before received restoration or been convicted of more than two felonies. A hearing before the governor and cabinet was also required for the following crimes: drug trafficking; committing a "dangerous crime"; sexual battery; aggravated assault or battery of a law enforcement officer, firefighter, emergency medical care provider or public transit agent; DUI manslaughter or other DUI felonies; homicide; public corruption; and violation of election laws.
With Rule 9a in place, few felons qualified for automatic reinstatement of civil rights, and the path to a hearing was tortuous. The number of restorations plummeted to an all-time low of 900 during 1998. More than 23,000 felons were released from prison that year.
Indeed, at the beginning of the June 2002 clemency board meeting, Tom Gallagher, the state treasurer, prodded fellow members to consider the consequences of knee-jerk denials. "Twenty-eight of the 60 cases on today's agenda are from objections to the automatic restoration process," he noted. "I'm not saying don't object if you really believe you should object, but just to take the list and object to everyone that's on the list, I think it's something we need to rethink. We're never going to get through this backlog. And that's very unfair to people."
Attorney General Bob Butterworth's response reveals the bureaucratic machine underpinning the hearing process: "I think most of us here are fairly busy, and we leave a lot of this to our staff," he says. "I would say very few of us, if any, actually look through these cases personally and pretty much leave it to staff."
Berg says he thinks the whole clunky process kicked off in the mid-1980s when a vengeful attitude toward criminals gripped the public -- which elected officials then played to. "An attitude that, despite the fact these people had served their sentence, we don't think they're worthy of having their civil rights restored," Berg says. "The thing the public and the politicians don't focus on is that the restoration of civil rights is part of the restorative process for getting someone reestablished in the community. There are a number of occupations that require licenses and are contingent upon one having his civil rights restored -- not just lawyers' and doctors' licenses but for blue-collar jobs. If they can't obtain these licenses and better-paying jobs than just straight labor, they're not going to be able to earn a living and pay taxes and support their families. I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that they're going to go back to a life of crime."
During the course of litigation, Berg discovered that the Department of Corrections had failed to assist 125,000 felons released from prison or supervision between 1992 and 2000 in getting their rights restored. "They claimed that didn't occur because of a computer glitch, that they ran out of six-digit inmate numbers, went to an alphanumeric system, and their computers didn't pick that up," Berg explains. "As a result, 125,000 inmates didn't go to the parole commission to determine whether they should get their rights restored by hearing or not."
As of the beginning of November 2002, the parole commission had a backlog of 81,000 cases, which includes cases from the computer glitch. The DOC has lent eight employees to the commission to work on the overlooked inmates, parole commission chairman Henry says. "We have commitment from both the governor and [DOC] that until we catch up and resolve it, they're going to be here with us," Henry says. "You gotta remember, we're getting more in each month as we speak because people are being released every month."
Asked point-blank if there's a time frame for eliminating the backlog, Henry admits: "I don't think we'll ever eliminate the backlog with the current resources we have."
Keep in mind, however, that Henry's office is simply dividing felons into two groups: those who are eligible for restoration without a hearing and those who require one. It's after this point, Berg points out, where much of the problem lies. "In fact, the statistics that the parole commission is now keeping show that 28 to 30 percent of those being released will get their rights restored without a hearing," he says. "Roughly 70 percent will not. Of that 70 percent who won't, very few will ever get their civil rights restored in Florida because the process with a hearing is so bureaucratic and burdensome. It's 70 percent of everyone being released from prison!"
The black caucus lawsuit argued that the DOC has a statutory responsibility to assist that 70 percent of felons in completing applications. In August this year, the judge ruled that the current practice by the DOC of e-mailing the felon list to the parole commission fulfilled the agency's statutory obligation. Berg plans to appeal the case.
Hopeful felons begin collecting in the lower level of the Tallahassee Capitol well before the governor and cabinet are scheduled to meet on the morning of December 12. Husbands and wives murmur in tight couplets in the corridors. Finely suited attorneys carry on louder conversations via cell phones. By 9 a.m., most are seated in the austere confines of the cabinet meeting room, which four times a year is home to the Executive Clemency Board. Thirty applicants are listed on today's agenda as seeking only restoration of civil rights, having waived a specific request to possess a firearm.
The chamber's energy level ignites as Gov. Jeb Bush enters a side door at the front of the chamber. The Capitol press corps swarms the governor, and his face glows from TV lights. He's wearing a greenish-gray suit with a baby-blue shirt, pastel colors that stand out against the no-nonsense black leather chairs and cherry-wood walls. He's in good humor today and appears utterly relaxed and in control among the six cabinet members and a dozen staffers on the periphery. Despite the gut-wrenching two hours to follow, he remains unflappable.
But then, emotion is the coin of the realm in the Executive Clemency Board chambers. In a spectacle that leaves the average person squirming in his seat, men and women of all ages weep before the governor for a chance to vote once again. "To be in this position is one of the most difficult for a governor," Bush pronounces at one point.
Edgell Sawyer, a robust and bald 81-year-old, prefaces his plea for civil rights by noting: "I met many of you while you were campaigning this year. I wanted to vote for you... which brings me to the reason I'm standing here today." Laughter fills the room, but Sawyer quickly turns plaintive and states he is old and wants to vote once again before he dies. "I fought, gentlemen, I fought," he sobs as he describes flying missions over Europe during World War II. Without comment, Bush tells him he'll take the case under advisement.
William Randolph Loe, a middle-aged man dressed in a suit several times too big, shakes as he begins to beseech the board. His wife stands behind him. The bodily tremors and tears keep him choking as in fragmented syntax he confesses his remorse, religious conversion, and new life as a giving man. Bush grants him a full pardon.
The last of the applicants, Brian Vaun Wilder, is a composed, goateed man in a gray polyester suit. He's calm as he explains his need to regain his civil rights so that he can once again be licensed as a land surveyor. His conviction had stemmed from a time when he'd been working on prison property and guards found firearms in his truck, which he claimed he'd forgotten to take out after target shooting. It was really just a mix-up, he tells the board. The governor denies Wilder's request.
To the surprise of many, Wilder boldly inquires, "Could I ask why I was denied?"
"The reason is a simple one," Bush replies stonily. "The lack of remorse. Come back in two years."
Ten of the 30 applicants have been denied, with three unfavorable cases taken under advisement.
A few minutes later, Bush is facing the phalanx of reporters once again, answering questions about reductions in classroom and cabinet size. Shouldn't the right to vote be restored automatically to felons who've served their time? Bush is asked. No, he replies, he doesn't support that. "Because, I think there ought to be efforts made to show, as people do here, that they've made an effort to improve their lives," he says. "That is an appropriate thing. There are certain things -- violent crimes, pedophiles who are habitual offenders, crimes against police officers -- that there is a threshold, I think, over which there needs to be a review."
Florida's governor, however, is not in step with most of the country when it comes to handling restoration of felons' rights.
"Florida today is basically one of 13 states where felons can lose voting rights even after they've completed their sentence," says Marc Mauer, assistant director at the Sentencing Project. "It's one of the most restrictive states in that regard, well out of the mainstream if you look at it that way."
In a 1998 report he authored, Mauer wrote that supporters of disenfranchisement frequently cite three reasons: protection against voter fraud, prevention of harmful changes to the law, and protection of the purity of the ballot box. But most crimes have nothing to do with voting, he points out, and there is no evidence that felons are more likely to commit voter fraud than anyone else. To the second point, there's little reason to believe that felons would vote as a group to overturn criminal laws. Moreover, Mauer writes, conditioning the right to vote on the content of one's vote "contradicts the very principle of universal suffrage." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot exclude a class of voters because of concerns about how they might vote.
As to the final rationale, Mauer writes: "Looked at closely, the 'purity of the ballot box' argument is no more than a moral competency version of the idea that the franchise should be limited to people who 'vote right.'"
Max Rameau, leader of Brothers of the Same Mind, a Miami-area black rights group, recalls similar resistance to legislation proposed in Tallahassee in 2000 that would have made restoration automatic. "The opposition basically said that if ex-offenders vote in a bloc, then they could affect the outcome of elections -- as if contractors or lobbyists or [political action committees] can't do the same thing," Rameau says. "Or that they could get together and vote for an elected official who's soft on crime. It was just bizarre.
"Obviously there are many reasons that are not publicly expressed. What we think is the motivating factor is that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine or disenfranchise black voters, undermine the black vote in general."
Alzo Reddick, a state representative from Orlando until he was term-limited in 2000, offers his own reason why Florida continues to disenfranchise felons. "There's a conservative element in this state that takes the Bible literally, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," submits Reddick, who is among a handful of black legislators who for years have sponsored bills to make restoration automatic. "They are opposed to having people who have sinned in their eyes returned to the full measure of citizenship." He calls it the "Christian Taliban."
"It is an embarrassment, but it's an issue that I'm going to fight until the day that I can no longer draw breath," says Reddick, who is now trying to garner support for a constitutional amendment that would, at the very least, make rights-restoration automatic. "In my opinion," he predicts, "this would do more to change the face of Florida politics than anything else."
Indeed, it could change the face of national politics. In an article published in December in the Journal of Sociology, sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that had off-paper felons in Florida been able to vote in the 2000 presidential election, Gore would have received an additional 60,000 votes, giving him the state's electoral college votes and, hence, the presidency. This is due in large part to the disproportionate number of African-American felons barred from voting whose preference would likely have been for Democrats and Gore.
"[The analysis] makes the key assumption that felons would behave politically in the same way as those who share their similar characteristics with the general population," Uggen explains. "We do a little bit of testing of that assumption using some other survey data, and it seems to bear out."
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When polled, a large majority of Americans, 80 percent, believe that felons' rights should be restored upon completion of sentence, probation and parole, according to the Uggen and Manza book Locking Up the Vote: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, which is scheduled for release next year. "When we ask about those on probation and parole, only about two-thirds would say they should regain their rights," Uggen says. "When we ask about current prisoners, it's down to 33 percent."
Opinions, however, do not break neatly along party lines, Uggen points out. "You'll find many libertarians among Republicans for whom the idea to limit civic participation this way is anathema. And similarly, I've had one Democrat tell me that the day Democrats come out in favor of criminals voting is the day he'll quit the Democratic Party. Both issues, crime and voting, seem to touch on the core of what it means to be a citizen in society."
Florida's labyrinthine process for restoring civil rights has been a problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations, says Mandy Dawson, a Democratic state senator who sponsored a bill during the 2001-02 session that would have made restoration automatic. It died in committee.
"It's been used as a political tool to smack the Republicans around because they are now in charge," she says. "I don't think it's fair to single out Jeb Bush because it's under his watch now, but I'm hoping he'll consider what a great statement it would make if this were corrected under his watch. In all honesty, it's a political issue whose time has come, and when people take the partisanship away from it, I think the state of Florida will be further along."