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Judge declares Florida's voter restoration process unconstitutional

By
Daniel Uria
A federal judge ruled Florida's voter restoration process for convicted felons, imposed by Gov. Rick Scott, routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
A federal judge ruled Florida's voter restoration process for convicted felons, imposed by Gov. Rick Scott, routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Florida's voter restoration process for convicted felons routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the state of Florida's "nonsensical" voter restoration system, which permanently bans anyone convicted of a felony from voting unless reinstated through the personal support of the governor, is unconstitutional.

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"Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony," Walker wrote in his 43-page order. "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."

Walker's ruling comes as the result of a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Rick Scott and nine others by the Fair Elections Legal Network on behalf of James Michael Hand and eight other former felons whose voting rights were not restored following the completion of their sentences.

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"In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines or standards," Walker wrote. "The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."

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Florida's system, imposed by Scott after he was elected in 2011, requires all felons to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, probation and restitution to apply for their right to vote and other civil rights to be restored.

Scott and his Cabinet then hear cases four times a year as a clemency board. The board usually hears fewer than 100 cases in each meeting and the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.

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Walker also deemed the clemency board's lack of time limit in processing and deciding on restoration as unconstitutional, noting Scott once told a 54-year-old man he would have to wait 50 years to reapply.

"The board regularly invokes some unknown future date as the appropriate time to revisit a restoration denial," he wrote.

Walker also cited several cases in which former felons "who professed political views amenable to the board's members" had their rights restored while those with contrary views were denied.

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"The question is whether the clemency board's limitless power over plaintiffs' vote restoration violates their First Amendment rights to free association and free expression. It does," wrote Walker. "This should not be a close question."

Walker ordered the Fair Elections Legal Network and the clemency board to file briefings on how to permanently remedy the constitutional deficiencies in the system by Feb. 12.

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