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Disenfranchisement News: Judge rules Florida’s rights restoration process is unconstitutional

February 26, 2018
Judge says 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.

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Judge rules Florida’s rights restoration process is unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that Florida’s system of restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions is arbitrary and violates First Amendment rights to free expression and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment. The Fair Elections Legal Network brought the suit against Republican Gov. Rick Scott on behalf of a group of formerly incarcerated individuals who had completed their sentences but were denied rights restoration by the state’s Office of Executive Clemency. Florida’s constitution automatically strips voting rights from individuals convicted of a felony, but governors can determine how voting rights get restored.

Under Gov. Scott’s system, individuals must wait at least five years after completing their sentence, including probation and paying any restitution, before they can apply for rights restoration. The individual must then go before the clemency board, a four-member panel headed by the governor that only meets four times a year. The state gives the governor “unfettered discretion” to grant or deny clemency for any reason. “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,” Judge Walker wrote. “The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”

In a follow-up hearing to decide how the state should change the rights restoration process going forward, the state laid out several options including a “uniform policy of declining to restore any felon’s right to vote; amending its rules to permanently revoke voting rights of certain felons; providing for discretion or non-discretion in all cases or continuing the current system with its mandatory waiting periods.” Judge Walker is expected to rule on this case soon, and Gov. Scott has indicated that the state will likely appeal the ruling.

Florida voters will decide whether the state expands voting rights in November

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition gathered the required 766,200 petition signatures to get their voting rights measure on the November ballot. The proposed constitutional amendment would automatically restore voting rights to most individuals upon completion of their prison, probation or parole sentence. Those convicted of murder or felony sexual offense would not be covered by the initiative. The measure will need the support of 60% of voters to pass.

“Through the hard work of Florida voters and unwavering dedication of a truly grassroots movement, we have reached a historic milestone and have officially placed the Second Chances Voting Restoration Amendment on the ballot,” said Desmond Meade, chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy and spokesperson for the Second Chances Florida Campaign. “Voters took matters in their own hands to ensure that their fellow Floridians, family members, and friends who’ve made past mistakes, served their time and paid their debts to society are given a second chance and the opportunity to earn back their ability to vote.”

Advocates start campaign to end felony disenfranchisement in California

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) and their member organization Initiate Justice have announced a new state campaign to expand voting rights to people in prison and on parole. Advocates plan on collecting enough signatures to create a ballot initiative. If the measure passes, it would expand voting rights to approximately 160,000 Californians.

“Incarcerated people are still citizens and should not be denied the ability to participate in the democratic process,” read an email announcement from CURB Statewide Co-Coordinator, Amber-Rose Howard. “Restoring this fundamental right lowers the risk of recidivism, promoting public safety as well as upholding principles of democracy and universal suffrage.”

One of every 10 adults is disenfranchised in Mississippi

There are 22 crimes that disenfranchise Mississippi residents from voting, impacting nearly 16% of the black electorate and one out of every 10 adults in the state. This rate is more than triple the national rate of disenfranchisement, according to a new report by the Mississippi NAACP, One Voice and The Sentencing Project. Out of the estimated 218,100 people disenfranchised in the state, 93% are living in the community either under probation or parole supervision, or have completed their criminal sentence.

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. Between 2000 and 2015, just 335 out of 166,494 people who completed their sentence had their rights restored.

The report recommends notifying individuals at sentencing about loss of voting rights and how to regain voting rights after they complete their sentence, increasing data collection on disenfranchisement across the state, and implementing automatic rights restoration for people who have completed the terms of their felony sentence.

UK expands voting rights to some incarcerated people

In a compromise between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the UK adopted a policy to expand voting rights to a small number of incarcerated individuals. The government will allow voting for those on “remand, committed to prison for contempt of court or default in paying fines, or released on temporary licence or home detention curfew.”

The compromise ends a dispute that started in 2005 when the ECHR ruled on a prison voting challenge brought by an incarcerated British man. The court said that a blanket ban on prison voting was illegal and violated human rights. But the UK refused to enforce the ruling. According to the Guardian, the UK’s refusal to follow the ECHR’s judgment has been used by other Council of Europe states as grounds for not enforcing other important rulings, “beginning a process that threatened to unravel international respect for the court.”

The compromise will impact just around 100 people, but the members of the Council of Europe said they were satisfied with the UK’s policy change.

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