Florida violates constitutional rights by blocking felons from the “fundamental” right to vote, U.S District Judge Mark Walker ruled Thursday (Feb. 1) in a 43-page decision published by the Tampa Bay Times.
In the ruling, Walker called the state’s current voter-restoration practice, which gives government officials “unfettered discretion” in restoring voter rights but “no meaningful time restraints on the exercise of that discretion,” a “scheme” that violates the first and 14th amendments.
“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” Walker wrote. “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s Governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. It’s members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. Until that moment (if it ever comes), these citizens cannot legally vote for presidents, governors, senators, representatives, mayors, or school-board members. These citizens are subject to the consequences of bills, actions, programs, and policies that their elected leaders enact and force. But these citizens cannot ever legally vote unless Florida’s Governor approves restoration of this fundamental right.”
Florida’s Constitution authorizes Gov. Rick Scott to restore voting rights “with the approval of at least two other board members.” To apply for restoration, felons are required to wait five to seven years from the completion of their sentence.
But Walker pointed out flaws in the system that works to stifle the already disenfranchised. “If any of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutional infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process.”
The board, which typically meets four times a year, considers “various factors” in its restoration decision, such as criminal and traffic records, alcohol and substance abuse, attitude of the applicant and their “payment of fines.” If the applicant is rejected, they have to wait two years to reapply.
“Having determined that Florida’s voter-restoration scheme is unconstitutional, this Court must determine the appropriate relief,” Walker continued. “This court could simply issue an order that is tantamount to saying ‘act right.’”
Walker set a Feb. 12 deadline for potential ways to remedy the judicial issue.