Former Criminals to Help Choose America's Next President

Convicted criminals, voting rights and a horse race too close to call. In Florida, the interplay between former felons' right to vote and an election that could hinge on a few handfuls of ballots raises concerns in a state that may once again decide the next president.

In October, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that more than 30,000 felons in the state who should have been stripped of their right to vote have remained registered on the voting rolls -- including 5,600 still in prison. And rights activists argue that thousands of felons who should have had their rights restored under Florida's new felon clemency rules are still being kept off eligible voter rolls.

Few Instances of Voter Fraud

State Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson have both raised alarms about the potential for voter fraud related to ineligible felons voting Nov. 4, but so far, instances of such fraud have remained isolated. Bronson is a member of the state's clemency board, which has final say over issues regarding felons' rights. The board voted 3-1 in 2007 to automatically restore the voting rights for most nonviolent felons. McCollum was the sole dissenter.

Bronson was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times in October saying that the "biggest disenfranchisement" would be that noncitizens or criminals cast ballots this election year, potentially canceling out legitimate votes.

However, others are crying foul for a different reason -- that despite recent reforms, many felons who should have had their voting rights restored still remain disenfranchised.

"What we have is still a burden placed on people with past felony convictions in Florida that isn't placed on people in other states," said Muslima Lewis, an attorney with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Most people in the state with past felony convictions are unjustly deprived of the right to vote."

Lewis said that the state has done a poor job in keeping its voter rolls updated -- restoring rights to nonviolent felons who have been released and removing incarcerated felons from the database of eligible voters.

More Former Criminals Eligible to Vote

Since the end of the Civil War, Florida has been one of the most restrictive states in allowing convicted felons to vote. But after changes last year to the way the state restores felons' voting rights after they are released from prison, more former criminals may be allowed to vote this election year than in any other. Instead of having to appear before the state clemency board, most released felons are allowed to have their rights restored automatically.

Those convicted of crimes such as murder must still petition the clemency board.

And in Florida, where recent polls show Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama hanging on to a slim lead over Republican nominee John McCain, experts said it wouldn't take much to swing the state.

And the "felon vote" could add to the mix, with ineligible felon votes potentially canceling out legitimate votes, and legally eligible voters becoming disenfranchised because of glitches or inconsistencies in the system, such as registered voters being denied a vote because their names are similar to those of felons.

Obama has supported measures in the U.S. Senate to grant voting rights to felons who have served their time, while McCain has stated in the past that he believes most felons should forfeit some rights when they commit a crime.

Voting Democratic

University of Florida political science professor Paul Ortiz said former prisoners tend to vote Democratic, and Obama's position on rights restoration could work to his advantage in hotly contested Florida.

"Clearly if one party is saying we're not going to outreach to this group of folks, then they're probably not going to get the vote," Ortiz said.

He added that the recent changes to Florida's felon voting restrictions, backed by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, are beginning to roll back more than a century of operating under a system with roots in Jim Crow laws designed to keep black voters away from polls.

"It's a topic rich with history. The felony disenfranchisement goes back to the reconstruction period when the disenfranchisement was was about race," Ortiz said. "But the state didn't have to say it was about race -- you would have black convicted felons who were singled out, but white convicted felons would slide through the process. It was selectively enforced."