Byline: ERIC BRADNER
Charles Russell lost his right to vote 25 years ago, when he was convicted of a felony.
Even though the 54-year-old Jacksonville resident paid his debt to society more than two decades ago, he thought the conviction meant he'd never again be able to cast a ballot.
"I walked around with my head down, thinking I can't vote," Russell said. "Come to find out, it's a totally different story."
Gov. Charlie Crist ordered last year that the state's process for restoring a felon's civil rights be streamlined.
The Florida Board of Executive Clemency rule change gave basic civil rights back to disenfranchised nonviolent offenders who have served their time and paid restitution.
That means at least 115,000 people can vote this year for the first time since being convicted.
"I can voice my opinion now," Russell said, "instead of being pushed back in a corner."
STARTING WITH A LONG LIST
Crist announced the streamlined civil rights restoration process in April 2007.
State law enforcement officials started with a list of nearly 700,000 people who might be eligible to have their rights restored, Florida Parole Commission spokeswoman Jane Tillman said.
After preliminary checks to cross off people who had died, re-offended, moved out of state, still owed restitution, had charges pending or already had their rights restored, that list was down to 185,000.
After a yearlong review, the Parole Commission announced in June that 115,000 have had their rights restored.
State Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, said the move is a relief for past offenders.
"They feel like they're still in prison because there are still so many roadblocks and impediments in front of them to keep them from being fully in society," he said.
PROBLEMS NOTIFYING OFFENDERS
The Parole Commission mails notification letters, but many of those letters are returned because law enforcement officials don't have updated contact information for the person, Tillman said.
The result: Many of the 115,000 people don't know they have their civil rights back.
"I just knew the law said if you have a felony, you can't vote," Russell said.
But Russell went in June to a restoration-of-rights workshop organized by several local elected officials.
A computer check showed the state had already restored his rights. Russell left as a registered voter.
To help, officials such as Hill are staffing workshops where felons can check to see if their rights are restored - and, if so, register to vote.
The Parole Commission had run and helped staff workshops such as Hill's, including one last month. But because its budget was slashed by 20 percent this year, it's just not possible to continue doing so, Tillman said.
"We don't have any money and we don't have any employees that we can really ask to do that," she said.
So Hill's workshops are often the only way some ex-offenders learn if their rights are restored and, if not, how they can ask the state for their rights back.
Richard Dixon, 22, grabbed a restoration-of-rights application Saturday at a community event .
"I planned on doing it anyway, but I didn't know they'd be able to help me do it right there," the Jacksonville resident said. …