TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a ruling that could reverberate in this year's crucial elections, a federal judge ruled that Florida's system of restoring voting rights for felons who have served their time is arbitrary and unconstitutional and needs to be changed as soon as possible. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued the blistering ruling Thursday in response to a lawsuit filed last year against Gov. Rick Scott by a voting rights organization.
Plaintiffs include people whose requests to restore their right to vote were turned down even though they completed their prison sentences.
Walker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ordered both sides to offer ways to remedy the system by Feb. 12. His 43-page ruling blasted Scott and state officials for the current system to restore voting rights, which can take years.
"A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation," Walker wrote. "Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key - but the state has swallowed it.
John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, defended the process and suggested an appeal is likely.
"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," said Tupps. "While we are reviewing today's ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court."
The ruling comes just months before Florida voters will be asked to alter the current ban. Backers of a constitutional amendment last week won a place on the November 2018 ballot. If sixty percent of voters approve, most former prisoners would have their rights automatically restored.
For decades, Florida's constitution has automatically barred felons from being able to vote after leaving prison. The state's clemency process allows the governor and three elected Cabinet members to restore voting rights, although the governor can unilaterally veto any request.
Walker said in his ruling that the automatic ban is legal, but the process can't be arbitrary or swayed by partisan politics. He noted, for example, that Scott and the Cabinet restored voting rights to a white man who had voted illegally but told Scott that he had voted for him. Walker also pointed out that others who acknowledged voting illegally - but were black - had their applications turned down.
Florida has a slow process for restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. It requires a hearing, and applicants are often denied. Shortly after taking office in 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist convinced two of the state's three Cabinet members to approve rules that would allow the parole commission to restore voting rights for non-violent felons without hearings, and within a year, more than 100,000 felons were granted voting rights.
But Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi pushed to end automatic restoration of voting rights as one of their first acts upon taking office in 2011. Since then, most former prisoners have to wait at least five years before they can even apply to have their rights restored. Over the last seven years, fewer than 3,000 of them have had their rights restored.
"Today a federal court said what so many Floridians have known for so long: that the state's arbitrary restoration process, which forces former felons to beg for their right to vote, violates the oldest and most basic principles of our democracy," said Jon Sherman, an attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network. "While the court has yet to order a remedy in this case, it has held in no uncertain terms that a state cannot subject U.S. citizens' voting rights to the limitless power of government officials."
Florida's ban on felon voting - along with a voting list purge that took some non-felons off voting rolls - likely cost then-Vice President Al Gore the . Republican George W. Bush won Florida that year, and thus the White House, by 537 votes in an election that took five weeks to sort out.
Before the 2000 election, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired a company to purge felons from the state's voting lists. But the process was flawed and many eligible voters were removed from rolls because of mistaken identity. Others were convicted of misdemeanors and not felonies.