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Federal Judge Nixes FL's Voter-Restoration Process

Florida is one of four states that denies the right to vote to all people convicted of felonies until they petition the state to restore those rights. (Amanda Wood/Flickr)
Florida is one of four states that denies the right to vote to all people convicted of felonies until they petition the state to restore those rights. (Amanda Wood/Flickr)
February 2, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a surprise victory for voting rights advocates, a federal judge has ruled Florida's current system for restoring voting rights to people after their release from prison is unconstitutional.

US District Judge Mark Walker said the process used by Florida's Board of Executive Clemency to decide how a person can get their voting rights restored violates the Constitution – both the First and 14th Amendments.

Jon Sherman, senior counsel with the Fair Elections Legal Network, challenged the Florida process. He says the court agreed the state doesn't have the right to disenfranchise or deny voting rights in these cases.

"What it did hold is the means by which former felons are forced to jump through hurdles – and beg the executive clemency board, the governor, the attorney general for their rights – that process is unconstitutional,” says Sherman.

The ruling doesn't immediately restore voting rights to people who have been incarcerated for felonies. Judge Walker ordered further briefing from all parties in the case to determine the appropriate remedy.

Sherman says the ruling is expected to make the process easier for people to regain their right to vote after they've served their time. He calls the current system unfair, for leaving the clemency board with unfettered discretion.

"Someone will be denied for a speeding ticket one day and then, the next hearing, someone will be granted despite having a history of speeding tickets,” says Sherman. “Someone's granted despite alcohol use, another person's denied for alcohol use – and this is the problem with the process. There are no rules."

More than 1.5 million Floridians are unable to vote due to the state policy of permanently disenfranchising people convicted of a felony. In November, voters will decide whether to amend the state Constitution to change that.

The ballot measure, to allow the automatic restoration of rights to those who have completed their sentence, will require a 60 percent 'yes' vote to pass.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - FL