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 Thursday, 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 former 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. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not," Walker wrote in his ruling.
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The Fair Elections Legal Network and Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, which has offices in Florida, filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of a proposed class of nearly 1.5 million former felons, according to a news release from the voting rights group and the law firm.
“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, senior counsel for the Fair Elections Legal Network.
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