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Implications for 2020 and Beyond as Judge Strikes Down Florida's "Nonsensical" Felony Voter Law

"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. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not."

A ruling by a federal judge on Florida Governor Rick Scott's policy barring former felons from voting, could have wide-ranging implications for upcoming elections. (Photo: hjl/Flickr/cc)

Calling Florida's disenfranchisement of felons who have completed their sentences "nonsensical" and unconstitutional, a federal judge on Thursday struck down the system that Republican Governor Rick Scott put in place in 2011.

Florida has been one of four states that have not automatically restored former felon's voting rights after they have served their time. The Brennan Center for Justice has called the state's system "one of the most punitive disenfranchisement policies in the country," barring 1.5 million people in the state from registering to vote—including 20 percent of the state's African-Americans of voting age.

Under Scott, convicted criminals who have served their time must wait five years after their release before they can apply through the Office of Executive Clemency to have their voting rights restored. The governor's Cabinet members are elected to serve on the panel, and Scott has had absolute veto authority over its decisions regarding former felon's civil rights.

"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," U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said. "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."

The system violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments, said Walker in his ruling on a lawsuit brought by the Fair Elections Legal Network on behalf of nine formerly incarcerated Florida residents.

The judge's ruling will not automatically restore voting rights to the state's former felons, but voting rights advocates say the strong rebuke of Scott's policy is the latest step toward enfranchisement. A recent campaign mounted by Floridians for Fair Democracy garnered enough support to have an amendment included on the state's November 2018 ballot that would restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, except those convicted of murder and sexual offenses.

The ruling and ballot initiative could have far-reaching implications for upcoming elections; President Donald Trump won Florida by just over 100,000 votes in November 2016.

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