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Florida Gov. Scott appeals court order to reform system for restoring voting rights
Florida officials appealed U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s order that the state change its process for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions. Judge Walker ruled that the current process is unconstitutionally arbitrary because it gives state officials unfettered discretion to grant or deny voting rights for any reason. He gave the state until April 26th to create a new system.
Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an appeal on behalf of the state and asked that the order be placed on hold or the April 26th deadline extended while the case moves to the federal appeals court. Judge Walker denied the request and criticized Gov. Scott and state officials. “Rather than comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution, defendants continue to insist they can do whatever they want with hundreds of thousands of Floridians’ voting rights and absolutely zero standards,” Walker wrote. “They ask this Court to stay its prior orders. No.”
Iowa and New Jersey newspapers call for felony disenfranchisement reform
After Judge Walker struck down Florida’s process of rights restoration, the Quad-City Times editorial board argued that Iowa’s system is also unconstitutional. “Florida’s discredited system of enfranchisement is bad enough, requiring the direct approval from the governor or one of his cabinet for the restoration of a felon’s voting rights. Iowa’s is even worse…only the governor can restore voting rights.” There are more than 56,000 people disenfranchised in Iowa, and about 49,000 are not incarcerated. The editorial board called on the Legislature to take up the issue of restoring rights to people who have completed their sentence during the next session. In the meantime, they called for a creation of a committee to expedite the petitions that have been ignored by the Governor’s office.
The New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial board recently came out in strong support of a bill to remove all voting restrictions for people with felony convictions—including for those in prison. New Jersey law requires that individuals complete their prison, probation and/or parole sentence before regaining their voting rights. The bill, sponsored by Senators Ron Rice, Sandra Cunningham, and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, would put New Jersey in line with Maine and Vermont as the only states without any felony disenfranchisement restrictions. “Some say felons have bad judgment, and that we don’t want such people picking our representatives,” wrote the editorial board. “We don’t set up voting barriers for racists or other ill-informed yokels who probably do more damage to their community with their reprehensible ballot choices than somebody who did time for tampering with a lobster trap.”
Unlock the Vote campaign registers California voters in jail
California allows individuals incarcerated in jail awaiting trial, serving a misdemeanor or probation violation, and those serving a county jail sentence for a low-level offense to vote. As part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s “Unlock the Vote” campaign, volunteers have been going inside Los Angeles and Orange County jails to register and educateeligible incarcerated voters. The campaign aims to have thousands of people in jail registered to vote for the June primary and November election.
In addition, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved a countywide initiative to promote voter education and registration for current and formerly incarcerated individuals. “No one should be denied their constitutional rights,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the plan. “I think voter registration efforts in the jails ought to be viewed as a significant piece to anti-recidivism and reentry.”
Lawsuit calls Mississippi’s disenfranchisement laws unconstitutional
On behalf of five plaintiffs, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Mississippi to automatically restore voting rights to individuals upon completion of their sentence. The suit called the state’s felony disenfranchisement laws “racially-biased, unconstitutionally arbitrary, and a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Mississippi bans people with felony convictions from voting for life if they have been convicted of one of 22 disenfranchising crimes. In order to regain voting rights, impacted individuals have three options: apply for a pardon from the governor; apply for an Executive Order Restoring Civil Rights from the governor; or have the State Legislature pass a bill of suffrage on their behalf (which must pass with two-thirds majority). This process results in very few people actually regaining their right to vote. According to The Sentencing Project, only 30 percent of Mississippians who have attempted rights restoration have had their rights restored.
Paloma Wu of SPLC said they decided to bring the suit now after seeing the progress made with lawsuits in Alabama and Florida. “There have been, in both of those lawsuits, some quite extraordinary decisions that we feel here in Mississippi are leading the way for a state like ours,” said Wu.
Texas woman sentenced to 5 years for voting with a felony conviction
Crystal Mason, 43, was sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting in the November 2016 election. In Texas, individuals with felony convictions are barred from voting until they have fully completed their criminal sentence. Mason was on supervised release when she voted in the election, and testified that she did not know she was prohibited from voting. During her testimony, Mason said that an election worker walked her through the process of filling out a provisional ballot after they failed to locate her name on the voter roll.
“There is a great deal of misinformation even among elections officials,” said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. “People are assured that they have the right to vote by elections officials and often they are operating on erroneous information.”
The judge could have sentenced Mason to anywhere between two to 20 years in prison or probation. Mason’s defense attorney has filed an appeal.