Florida's voting laws could be seriously altered — before the midterms and 2020 elections

A judge strikes down Florida's arbitrary restrictions on how the state restores voting rights to felons

By Matthew Rozsa

Published February 2, 2018 9:49AM (EST)

 (Getty/Michael Reaves)
(Getty/Michael Reaves)

A judge in Florida has struck down the state's system of disenfranchising convicted felons by arguing that the status quo violates their constitutional rights.

The ruling found that the state's old requirements — that convicted felons personally appeal to the governor, and that he could approve or deny — were arbitrary because they put all the power in the hands of the governor.

"To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida's governor has absolute veto authority," U. S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in his scathing judgment on Florida's law stripping voting rights from convicted felons, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration . . . The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."

He added, "If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process."

Judge Walker did not offer specifics on how the unconstitutional voting restoration system could be fixed, aside from the fact that he plans on holding hearings on the subject in mid-February, according to The Washington Post. Walker's decision would not automatically restore voting rights to criminals who had completed their sentences, even though that is done by every other state except for Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, according to NPR.

One memorable piece of evidence that Walker cited as proof of the unconstitutional nature of the board that determines whether disenfranchised felons can have their voting rights restored was Gov. Rick Scott saying, "We can do whatever we want."

Scott's communications director, John Tupps, released a statement after ruling stating, "the discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons' rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors."

Controversies over the constitutionality of laws that rescind voting rights for felons span beyond the borders of Florida. Partial restorations of convicted felons' ability to vote have occurred in both Alabama and Virginia over the last few years, with the latter state quite likely seeing major shifts in its power structure from Republicans to Democrats as a result of the policy.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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