With the Republican party using the restriction of voting rights as a primary tool to win elections, Americans are fortunate that the constitutional separation of powers enables the court system to rescind the party’s most egregious violations of the norms of democracy.
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Voting restrictions have taken many forms: from the poll taxes instituted in the Jim Crow South to prevent newly freed African-Americans from expressing their democratic rights, to more subtle and pernicious strategies including restricting early voting, voter ID laws, changes in locations of polling places and voting hours, and the old standby of gerrymandering districts to ensure that one party has a majority of registered voters.
Perhaps the most difficult to solve voter repression strategy, however, comes as a result of the government prison-industrial complex that is responsible for America having the largest mass incarceration rate of any nation in the world.
With thousands of people sent to prison as victims of a war on drugs that was specifically designed to undermine the political power of Republican opponents, laws stripping convicted felons of their rights to vote, even after they have served their sentences, can mean that the number of disenfranchised felons exceeds the margin of difference in the voting totals between candidates.
While laws on voting by convicted felons vary from state to state, there are now an estimated 6.1 million people subject to felony disenfranchisement nationwide, even after laws restoring rights or making the restoration process simpler were passed by 28 states between 1996 and 2008.
The state of Florida is home to the largest number of felons without voting rights, with 1.5 million people stripped of their ability to participate in the electoral process, nearly 9.5% of the voting population.
While Florida has had a process by which felons can petition the state to regain their franchise, a federal judge ruled today that the state “routinely violates the constitutional rights of its citizens by its system of restoring or denying voting rights for anyone convicted of a felony,” according to an article in The Tampa Bay Times.
“U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the Florida ‘scheme’ of restoring voting rights unfairly relies on the personal support of the governor for citizens to regain the right to vote. In a strongly-worded ruling, he called the state’s defense of voter disenfranchisement ‘nonsensical,’ a withering criticism of Gov. Rick Scott, the lead defendant in the case.”
“‘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 question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.'”
“‘If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more. When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process.'”
Florida’s current system was primarily designed by Republican Governor Rick Scott and requires all felons to wait until at least five years after serving their sentences, go through the entire probation period, and pay all restitution before they can even apply for the right to vote.
According to The Tampa Bay Times, Judge Walker condemned Scott’s voting restoration system because it gave “unfettered discretion” in the decision making process to four partisan politicians. He cited Governor Scott’s comment made at one hearing when he said “We can do whatever we want” as proof of the fundamental unfairness of the process.
Scott amended the previous voting rights restoration policy in Florida in 2011, shortly after he took office. Prior to the system struck down by Judge Walker today, most convicted felons in the state, with the exceptions of murderers and sex offenders, automatically had their voting rights restored without having to apply and attend a hearing.
That prior system was instituted by former Republican Governor Charlie Crist (who has since fled the Republican Party to become a Democrat congressman.) Crist took to Facebook to comment on the judge’s ruling.
“We’ve known this policy was unjust, and today a federal judge confirmed it’s also a violation of constitutional rights,” Crist wrote.
Since Florida has been a crucial swing state in the most closely contested presidential elections in recent years, and is now a battleground in the fight for sensible gun regulations, the potential addition of another million and a half voters to the electorate could lead to dramatic shifts in the power structure of the state government and heavily influence national elections.
No wonder Republicans have been so intent on preventing so many from exercising their constitutional rights.