Associated Press
November 10, 2000

Ex-Convicts Voting Could Help Count

By David Crary

New York (AP) -- By himself, Tracee Carter wouldn't have tipped the balance in the presidential race. But if all released convicts were able to vote in Florida, as they are in most states, the election probably would have ended on time, with Al Gore the winner.

''They make us pay taxes, but we can't cast our vote,'' Carter said Friday from Gainesville, Fla., ''For someone who gave their time back to society for the wrong they did, I don't think that's right.''

With the race between Gore and George W. Bush hinging on a few hundred Florida votes, advocacy groups contended that the outcome was skewed by the disenfranchisement of more than 500,000 ex-offenders.

Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, two of the groups raising the issue, estimated that 31 percent of the black men in Florida -- more than 200,000 potential voters -- were excluded from the polls because they were in prison or had criminal records.

''It's ironic that this election is going to turn on the fact that Florida is one of 13 states which retain laws disenfranchising ex-offenders,'' said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch.

''These laws have no discernible legitimate purpose,'' she said. ''They are anachronistic, politically untenable and have a devastating impact on democracy.''

Florida does have some mechanisms for ex-offenders to regain voting rights, but Fellner said the bureaucratic hurdles -- often including payment of substantial fines -- can be difficult to clear. An initiative to ease the process died in a legislative committee last year.

Nearly all states prohibit prison inmates from voting, and most extend the disfranchisement laws to offenders who are on parole or probation. But only 13 states, including Florida, routinely extend the prohibition permanently.

Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down some disenfranchisement laws that it deemed racially discriminatory. But in general, he said, states have the right to bar ex-offenders from voting, based on a clause in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

A lawsuit seeking to strike down Florida's law was filed in September by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The center's director, Nancy Northup, said the state law has its roots in the post-Civil War era, when whites across the South were seeking ways to minimize black voting power.

''The discriminatory intent of this law has not dissipated since then,'' Northup said. ''This election makes clear that the number of people affected is not just of academic interest.''

The impact is certainly more than academic to Tracee Carter, who moved to Gainesville from Philadelphia after spending two years in prison for assault.

He works as a boat-builder and lives at the House of Hope, where released convicts obtain shelter, job counseling and other services.

''I was always a voter before -- I love politics,'' said Carter, 35. ''Now someone asks me, 'Did you go vote?' and I say, 'I can't.' I sound like a little kid.''

The consequence in Florida, where an overwhelming majority of Carter's fellow blacks voted for Gore, ''is that you're not getting the true opinion of all the people,'' he said

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, an estimated 3.9 million Americans -- one in 50 adults -- had temporarily or permanently lost voting rights as a result of a felony conviction. Of those, 1.4 million were ex-offenders who had completed their sentences.

''If the theory is to bring people back into the community, it's a terribly shortsighted policy,'' said the ACLU's McDonald. ''It's totally indefensible to create a permanent outlaw caste.''

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