In a landmark decision, a United States District Court judge declared unconstitutional Florida's system for withholding former felon voting rights. Judge Mark Walker ruled that the current practices in Florida violate First Amendment rights to free speech and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
The decision was based on a lawsuit brought against Republican Governor Scott by a group of nine formerly incarcerated individuals. The Fair Elections Legal Network pushed the case through the court system, charging that formerly incarcerated Floridian citizens were being denied constitutional rights by Florida' Office of Executive Clemency.
Currently, under the Florida constitution, convicted felons automatically lose voting rights. Even after incarcerated people complete their sentences, they must wait a minimum of five years before they can restore their voting rights. Then, they have to present their case to a four-member clemency board, which meets only four times a year. The governor can grant or deny clemency for any reason.
In a scathing ruling, Judge Walker wrote that, “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.”
There has already been grassroots movement to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a self-proclaimed, “grassroots, membership organization run by Returning Citizens (Formerly Convicted Persons),” received over 760,000 signatures on a petition to restore felon voting rights. The petition is aimed at amending the Florida constitution, and would immediately restore felon voting rights upon completion of a prison, probation, or parole sentence. Their proposed voting rights measure will now appear on the November ballot, placing the fate of felon disenfranchisement in the hands of Florida voters. At least 60% of Florida voters must approve the measure in order to amend the constitution.
Currently, four states - California, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York, automatically restore voting rights when someone is released from prison and discharged from parole. Two California organizations, California United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) and Initiate Justice, are also campaigning to provide voting rights to people in prison and on parole.
The disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people systematically denies thousands of citizens their constitutional rights. The laws were specifically created to disenfranchise African Americans, and often predominantly communities of color and of lower socioeconomic status. It's no coincidence that the disenfranchised groups, very likely to vote democrat, are the most disenfranchised in Republican-majority states. Voting rights constitute the hallmark of democracy. Systematically denying these rights to minority groups violates not only the American constitution but the inviolability of democracy itself.