(CN) – Florida’s process for re-establishing voting rights for ex-felons is arbitrary and unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
In his 43-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker openly attacked Governor Rick Scott and his clemency board over their “unfettered discretion” to deny voting rights “for any reason.”
“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. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration.”
After striking down the state’s enfranchisement procedures, Walker ordered both parties to present remedies to fix the system within 10 days.
Governor Scott vowed to appeal.
The ruling impacts nearly 1.7 million former felons – one-tenth of the state’s voting age population – and could have significant repercussions for the 2018 mid-term elections. (Scott is expected to run for U.S. Senate against Senator Bill Nelson.) The decision comes days after voting rights groups successfully placed an amendment on the 2018 ballot to restore rights to all ex-felons, except those convicted of violent crimes.
Florida is one of four states that require former felons to petition for restoring their voting rights.
Under the current system, largely shaped by Scott and his cabinet in 2011, any felon wishing to restore their voting rights must wait five or seven years after completing their sentence, including probation, before petitioning the clemency board. Four times a year, the board – made up of Scott and his elected cabinet – holds hearings for less than 100 applicants. Though not required, the board encourages petitioners to be present in the state capital for their 10-minute hearing. But as Walker’s ruling notes, the board has no fixed rules on how to review petitioners and Scott has the final say. If denied, the felon must wait two years to re-apply.
In the 7 years of the Scott administration, less than 3,000 former felons regained the right to vote. During the last four years of the previous administration, the state restored rights to 154,000 petitioners.
Seven ex-felons brought the class-action suit against Governor Scott and other Florida officials last March, arguing the restoration process violates the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs alleged the clemency board’s decisions were inconsistent, vague and could have been influenced by political beliefs.
Judge Walker’s ruling details “alarming illustrations of this scheme in action,” including an instance where Scott questioned a man about illegally voting. When the man replied he voted for Scott, the governor laughed and, seconds later, granted his voting rights.
Walker referenced five other incidents where the clemency board denied rights restoration because of illegal voting. Four out of five of them, Walker notes, were African-American.
Throughout the ruling, Walker – appointed by President Obama in 2012 – used colorful language to lambast the state.
“A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation,” he wrote. “Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key – but the state has swallowed it. Only when the state has digested and passed that key in the unforeseeable future – maybe in five years, maybe in 50 – along with the possibility of some virus-laden stew of viewpoint discrimination and partisan, religious or racial bias, does the state in an ‘act of mercy’ unlock the former felon’s voting rights from its hiding place.”
The Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm Cohen Millstein Sellers & Toll represented the former felons.
“Today a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long – that the state’s arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy,” said John Sherman, senior counsel at Fair Elections Legal Network in a statement. “While the court has yet to order a remedy in this case it has held in no uncertain terms that a state cannot subject U.S. citizens’ voting rights to the limitless power of government officials.”
Governor Scott plans to appeal the decision, according to a statement released by spokesman John Tupps.
“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors,” Tupps said. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.”