Florida’s legal battle over voting rights for ex-prisoners escalated on Monday, as the state and a voting rights organization representing former felons made dramatically different requests of a federal judge.
Lawyers who have sued Florida want U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to order the automatic restoration of voting rights to anyone who has been out of prison at least five years. Walker ruled earlier this month that the state’s system of restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time is arbitrary and unconstitutional.
Gov. Rick Scott, however, says that Walker should refrain from ordering the state to take any action. Instead the judge should leave it up to the governor and other state officials to decide how to change the current system.
“Officials elected by Floridians, not judges, have the authority to determine Florida’s clemency process for convicted felons,” said John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott. “This is outlined in Florida’s Constitution and has been in place for more than a century and under multiple gubernatorial administrations.”
Florida’s constitution automatically bars felons from being able to vote after leaving prison. The state’s clemency process allows the governor and three elected Cabinet members to restore voting rights, although the governor can unilaterally veto any request. The rules used to decide who is eligible for rights restoration is left up to the governor and Cabinet and have been changed over the years.
Florida was sued on behalf of ex-felons whose requests for voting rights were turned down.
Walker said in his ruling that the automatic ban itself is legal, but the process to restore rights can’t be arbitrary or swayed by partisan politics. He concluded that the current system, which right now bars most ex-felons from applying for at least five years after prison, is flawed.
The judge gave each side until Monday to recommend a remedy to comply with his ruling.
Fair Elections Legal Network and attorneys working with group asked the judge to restore rights to anyone who has already complied with the existing waiting periods now in place, which are either five or seven years depending on the crime committed.
“Such an order will effectively eliminate the requirement for ex-felons to affirmatively apply for restoration and eliminate the state’s obligation to investigate each ex-felon in the state of Florida,” states the group’s legal brief.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, representing the governor, argued that Walker lacks the authority to order a specific remedy. Lawyers for the governor also said the judge should allow state officials to revamp the existing process, although it was noted that Florida was likely to appeal the decision.
“Enjoining the enforcement of valid state laws and constitutional provisions does not constitute a proper remedy for any of the court’s conclusions regarding the state’s vote-restoration process,” stated Florida’s brief.
The legal fight comes just months before Florida voters will be asked to alter the current ban. Backers of a constitutional amendment have won a place on the November 2018 ballot. If sixty percent of voters approve, most former prisoners would have their rights automatically restored.