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Thousands of Florida ex-felons may not know they can vote

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - More than 13,000 ex-felons may be eligible to vote in Florida but don't know it because the notices the parole board mailed to them were returned as undeliverable, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.

The civil rights group raised the concern after analyzing more than 17,000 names of ex-felons who had their voting rights automatically restored by the Florida Parole Commission.

The list was obtained under the state's public records law and included ex-felons whose Restoration of Civil Rights certificates were returned undelivered to the parole commission.

Florida is one of a minority of U.S. states that does not automatically restore civil rights once a felon has completed a sentence.

The certificates were sent between 2007 and March 2011 under a short-lived policy that automatically restored civil rights to nonviolent offenders.

The policy was repealed in March 2011 by Florida Governor Rick Scott and a newly elected Florida Cabinet, which voted to make it more difficult for ex-felons to get their civil rights back.

After reviewing 17,604 names of those who had their rights restored, the ACLU said it found 13,517 who were not registered to vote.

The Republican governor has been aggressively pursuing efforts to purge the state's voter rolls of non-citizens and others who are ineligible to cast ballots. Last month, Florida gained access to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database to search for non-citizens in its voter rolls.

Critics have charged that the Republican-led efforts disenfranchise legitimate voters and unfairly target groups likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates.

"The spirit of American democracy lives first and foremost in our precious right to vote and choose our leaders," Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. "But here in Florida, Governor Scott has done nearly everything in his power to make voting more difficult, from blocking countless citizens from voting, to neglecting the rights of those who can."

Florida parole officials say they have followed protocol in attempting to notify qualified ex-felons that their rights have been restored. In most cases, forwarding addresses were not provided or were incorrect.

In some cases, the agency made "multiple attempts" to make contact, but to no avail, said Tammy Salmon, a parole commission administrative assistant. In addition, the commission's website allows viewers to search to see if an ex-offender's rights have been restored.

"We are going above and beyond to try to reach these folks," Salmon said.

(Editing by Jane Sutton)

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