Historic is an overused adjective to describe significant milestones in civic life. In this case, it is not hyperbole. A federal judge’s sweeping order that Florida’s archaic system for restoring felons’ right to vote is unconstitutional opens the door wider this year for transformational change. Instead of appealing the ruling, Gov. Rick Scott should craft a fairer system for restoring felons’ rights that would be his greatest legacy.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker does not mince words in his colorful 43-page order. He found the state’s "vote-restoration scheme’’ violates the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression. He accurately described how felons are required to "kowtow" to the governor and three Cabinet members, who are guided by "mythical’’ standards and arbitrarily decide who gets their voting rights restored and who doesn’t. The governor has "absolute veto authority,’’ and felons are required to wait up to seven years after they have completed their sentences just to apply to regain the right to vote. It is a system that is unworkable and unconscionable.
The judge’s entertaining description is priceless: "A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation. Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key — but the state has swallowed it. Only when the state has digested and passed that key in the unforeseeable future — maybe in five years, maybe in 50 — along with the possibility of some virus-laden stew of viewpoint discrimination and partisan, religious, or racial bias, does the state in an ‘act of mercy,’ unlock the former felon’s voting rights from its hiding place.’’
As Walker recounts, the track record of the governor and Cabinet serving as the Clemency Board is not flattering. A white man who told Scott he voted for the governor when he cast an illegal ballot had his rights restored. The plaintiffs, nine felons who have completed their sentences, described instances where felons who offered political views similar to those held by the governor and Cabinet members won back their voting rights while those with different views were rejected. And similar conduct by felons can produce different results from the board, which typically meets just four times a year.
The judge’s order increases momentum for fundamental change that could affect more than 1 million felons. Walker gave the governor until Feb. 12 to propose an overhaul, and Scott should make a good-faith effort. A constitutional amendment already is on the November ballot that would automatically restore the voting rights of felons who were not convicted of murder or sex crimes. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, withdrew his similar amendment from consideration this week by the Constitution Revision Commission, which can put amendments directly on the ballot. While Rouson’s version included more exemptions for violent crimes and could have been an easier sell to voters, he made a pragmatic decision amid concerns about similar amendments being on the ballot or commission members adding a lengthy waiting period to his proposal.
Following the judge’s order, there also is talk among Republican legislative leaders about the Legislature placing on the ballot its own amendment regarding felons’ voting rights. But they also likely would include an untenable waiting period similar to the current one that the judge criticized. In the short term, the smartest approach would be for Scott to submit to the judge a proposal to automatically restore voting rights for most felons with reasonable exclusions for felons convicted of the most violent crimes. If the governor fails, the constitutional amendment already on the ballot may be the best and last option.
This is an opportunity for Florida to finally abandon a shameful relic of the past and for the governor to provide vision and leadership. This is the year to join most every other state in creating a fair, efficient system for restoring voting rights. This is the federal court order that could be the long-needed impetus for reform, and it is indeed historic.