In a strongly-worded opinion, a federal judge has ruled that Florida’s method of restoring voting rights to individuals convicted of felonies violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In Hand v. Scott, a suit brought by seven individuals either denied restoration of rights by the State Clemency Board or ineligible to apply, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker held that Florida’s “arbitrary” and “crushingly restrictive” restoration scheme, in which “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,” violates rights of free speech and association, and risks viewpoint and other discrimination.
As reported in this local press article, Governor Scott’s office issued a statement late Thursday, hinting at an appeal. Scott was the principal architect of the current system that requires all applicants for clemency to wait at least five years after they complete their sentences, serve probation and pay all restitution, before they may be considered for restoration of the vote and other civil rights. Throughout his 43-page ruling, Judge Walker cited the arbitrariness of Florida’s system, noting that people have been denied their voting rights because they received speeding tickets or failed to pay child support.
Scott and the Cabinet, meeting as a clemency board, consider cases four times a year, and usually fewer than 100 cases each time. It can take a decade or longer for a case to be heard, and at present the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases. Scott imposed the restrictions in 2011, soon after he was elected, with the support of three fellow Republicans who serve on the Cabinet, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, now a leading candidate for governor. Scott’s actions in 2011 reversed a policy under which many felons, not including murderers and sex offenders, had their rights restored without application process and hearings. That streamlined process was instituted in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican and now a Democratic member of Congress.
The context in which the case was decided is described in this NPR article. Last month, Florida elections officials approved a November ballot measure that would automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences, with exceptions for murder and serious sex offenses.