By J. Zamgba Browne
A federal judge in Florida has ruled that the state’s system for restoring voting rights to former felons was unconstitutional because it provided a “gauntlet” of hurdles” toward restoring the franchise.
Florida is one of four states in the country that permanently strips voting rights of anyone with a felony conviction.
To get their voting rights restored, former felons who have completed their entire sentences must appear before a clemency board consisting of the governor, state attorney general, and agriculture commissioner.
According to published reports, the board only meets once a quarter and after Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office, he made it so felons had to wait at least five years before completing their sentences to apply.
It is reported that approximately 10,000 people in the State of Florida are waiting to have their voting rights restored.
Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida noted that in the four years before Gov Scott took office, 154,000 people had their rights restored.
But since the Governor was sworn in, fewer than 3, 000 people had their voting rights restored since 2011.
Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012, said as it currently exists; the board has absolute discretion over whether to restore voting rights.
“Florida’s Executive Clemency Board has, by rule, unfettered discretion in restoring voting rights. ‘We can do whatever we want,’ the Governor said at one clemency hearing.”
Walker wrote as follows in his scathing opinion. “In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constrains, guidelines, or standards. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not,”
Judge Walker found that Florida’s system violated the First Amendment protections on freedom of expression and the equal protection clauses of the 14the Amendment.
He explained that the board restored voting rights to those who expressed conservative views, while those who expressed views disagreeing with the board members did not.
Judge Walker pointed to an example when the board asked a white man about an illegal vote he had cast, but restored his voting rights after he told Gov. Scott the vote had been for him.
The judge Walker reported that the board denied restoring voting rights to five other former felons – four of whom were Black – for casting illegal ballots.
“If anyone of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental rights to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more,” Walker wrote in the conclusion to his opinion.