In a landmark ruling with far-reaching implications, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has found Florida’s scheme for restoring the voting rights of felons unconstitutional.
Walker, in a 43-page order issued today, found that Florida “automatically disenfranchises” any individual who has been convicted of a felony and wishes to vote.
“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” Walker wrote. “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.”
The ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by James Michael Hand and eight other felons who completed their sentences, including probation, but were not deemed eligible to vote.
“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 continued. “The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
Walker, who sits on the bench in the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, took aim at Gov. Rick Scott, whom the nine plaintiffs sued along with Florida’s Executive Clemency Board. The board consists of the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner.
Walker highlighted a 2010 case, in which Steven Warner, a white man, cast an illegal ballot. Three years later, he sought the restoration of his voting rights before the state’s Clemency Board. Gov. Scott asked him at the time about his illegal voting. When the man said he voted for Scott, the governor laughed. A few seconds later, Scott granted the man his voting rights.
“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,” Walker wrote. “This should not be a close question.”