Florida Felon Voting Ban System Found Unconstitutional
Image of the United States Courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida
Source: United States District Court Northern District of Florida, “Home,” find.uscourts.gov (accessed Feb. 2, 2018)
On Feb. 1, 2018 a federal judge ruled that Florida’s system of disenfranchising people convicted of a felony was unconstitutional.
The ruling by US District Judge Mark Walker found that Florida’s system of permanently disenfranchising everyone convicted of a felony unless they petition the Governor to receive executive clemency violates the First Amendment right to free association and free expression, due to the arbitrary nature of the executive clemency process. The ruling also found that Florida’s executive clemency process to restore voting rights to some convicted felons violates the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law.
In his ruling, Judge Walker stated that “Florida’s vote-restoration scheme is crushingly restrictive,” and “crumbles under strict scrutiny because it risks – if not covertly authorizes the practice of – arbitrary and discriminatory vote-restoration.” It is a system, according to the Judge, that “allows government officials to ‘do whatever [they] want.'”
In response to the ruling, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s spokesperson released a statement arguing that “the discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades,” and that “the governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities,” before their ability to vote is restored.
The state of Florida is one of only 10 states that disenfranchise people convicted of a felony even after they have completed their terms of parole and probation. There are currently about 1.6 million people in the state who cannot vote due to a felony conviction – the highest number of any state in the nation.
The status of Florida’s 1.6 million disenfranchised felons is now uncertain. The judge has required that the state and the nine former felons who filed the lawsuit must now submit motions to the court with suggestions on ways to fix Florida’s restoration of rights process.
In addition to this court case, voters in the state of Florida also recently approved a ballot initiative that, if passed in November, will amend the state constitution to allow most people who have been convicted of a felony to have their ability to vote automatically restored once they have completed their term of incarceration and any term of parole or probation. The ballot initiative will not apply to persons convicted of murder or a sexual offence.
Jon Kamp, “Judge Rules Against Florida’s Felon Voting Rights Restoration Process,” wsj.com, Feb. 2, 2018
Mercedes Leguizamon and Saeed Ahmed, “1.5 Million Felons in Florida Were Stripped of Their Right to Vote. That May Soon Change,” cnn.com, Jan. 29, 2018
Pema Levy, “Judge Strikes Down Felon Disenfranchisement System in Florida,” motherjones.com, Feb. 1, 2018
Gary Rohrer, “Florida’s Ban on Felons Voting Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules,” sun-sentinel.com, Feb. 1, 2018
United States District Court Northern District of Florida, James Michael Hand v. Gov. Rick Scott & State of Florida, Feb. 1, 2018