The state of Florida has until April 26 to curb its practice of felony disenfranchisement after U.S. District Judge Mark Walker lambasted the “fatally flawed” system.
Walker struck down Florida's vote restoration system as unconstitutional, criticizing the fact that the system relied heavily Governor Rick Scott's personal support.
Felony disenfranchisement is the practice of exclusion from voting of people, who otherwise are eligible to vote, due to a felony conviction.
States are given a long leash when it comes to disenfranchisement with some making it permanent even after a person has repaid their debt to society. The Sunshine State is one of these states with the highest number of disenfranchised felons in the nation.
In contrast, Maine and Vermont place no restrictions on people with felony convictions, allowing them to vote while incarcerated. In between, fourteen states automatically restore voting rights when a person who has been convicted of a felony is released.
"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."
Currently, there are 1,680,000 Floridians disenfranchised by this Jim Crow reboot according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRCC).
The New York Times reports that 21.3 percent of adult African-Americans in Florida cannot vote. That is more than one in five African-Americans barred from participation in the political process and therefore lacking adequate representation.
An underlying cause of this is disparities in sentencing, according to legal experts. Read the headlines and you'll see many examples of harsher punishment for black people and people of color than for white people who commit the same crime.
A glaring example of this is the black woman from Texas who was sentenced to five years for “illegally” voting in the 2016 presidential election.
Crystal Mason, 43, of Tarrant County, served three years in federal prison for tax fraud and was out on supervised release. According to Mason, she was not informed of her conditional rights and was encouraged by her mother to go out and vote. An issue with her ballot prompted an investigation resulting in her arrest and subsequent sentencing.
In comparison, a Trump-supporting white woman was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $750 for voting twice for Donald Trump.
While Mason alleges that she did not know of her limited rights as a convicted felon when she voted, Rote intentionally voted twice fearing that her initial ballot would be changed in support of Hillary Clinton.
She believed Trump's assertion that the elections were rigged and wanted to do her part to support her pick. To add insult to injury, District Court Judge Robert Hanson said the felony election misconduct conviction will be erased from Rote's record once she finishes probation and coughs up the fine.
That is just one of many examples of the disparities in doling out punishment to black people versus white people.
It is a historical practice in American society that every concession the ruling class makes to right a wrong, a condition must be added.
For example, when the federal government decided to abolish slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, a clause was injected reversing the decision when used as punishment for a crime.
The same government also signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a law that requires constant renewal by the ruling class.
The Voting Rights Act allegedly aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African-Americans from exercising their right to vote as "guaranteed" under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
When you tie that in with the felony disenfranchisement in the state of Florida, you find a large number of African-Americans caught between a rock and a hard place.
In layman's terms, black people are no longer slaves and are given the conditional right to vote. Barring any criminal activity, black people can vote in every election until Washington D.C. decides to no longer renew the Voting Rights Act.
It was last renewed in 2006 under President George W. Bush. Each time the act came under scrutiny more provisions or amendments were made to it.
"A 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidated a key part of the law that required states with histories of racial discrimination to seek approval from the federal government before changing its voting laws.
In the wake of the ruling, several states governed by Republicans, including North Carolina and Texas, have passed laws that curb early voting, require people to provide identification at the polls and prohibit pre-registration for people under 18."
While the prison population is disproportionately people of color, most of the ineligible voters are not in prison. They are on parole or probation, or have completed full sentences and are out of prison.
Desmond Meade, president of the FRCC said, "... majority of people whose rights are not restored are people living in our communities as we speak.”
The political implications of restoring voting rights to felons is far-reaching from Tallahassee to Washington D.C. The Miami Herald reports that university professors Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza conducted a study of the Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000.
Their conclusions revealed that if the state's former felons had their rights restored and had a voter turnout of 13 percent, an additional 31,000 votes would have been cast. That would have significantly affected Bush's 537-vote margin.
“It’s pretty hard to argue that didn’t have an impact on that election,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor at the University of South Florida, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a Republican. Paulson says the issue “is 98 percent due to racial politics” but the “one-size-fits-all policy hurts whites, too.”
In the last two elections for governor, the decision came down to a 61,000-vote margin. Had more felons been allowed to vote, the outcome would have been significantly different.
President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the state by fewer than 120,000 votes.
“That is precisely why it’s been so difficult to get Republican support for restoration of felon voting rights,” said Paulson, who supports a change in Florida’s restrictive laws. “It’s not a partisan issue, but the Republican Party, which started as the good guys as the party of Lincoln, now look at black voters as a threat to Republican dominance in the state.”
“My position is it’s not a good way to make public policy based on how it might impact an election sometime down the road,” he said. “Voting rights restoration is economically right, morally right and just the right thing to do.”
Walker also placed an injunction on Florida's system of forcing ex-felons to wait five years before requesting to have their voting rights restored. That system was put into place at the insistence of the governor and then-State Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“There are problems of potential abuse – especially when members of the board, who are elected on a statewide basis and who may be running for reelection or another office, have a personal stake in shaping the electorate to their perceived benefit,” wrote Judge Walker.
"The system is broken, and now we know not only is it broken, but the courts are saying it's unconstitutional," Meade said.