Florida Rights Restoration Coalition fights for voting rights for formerly convicted felons

by Jack Kulas

In early August, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for felons who committed certain enumerated crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

In the decision, the judges wrote, “Mississippi denies this precious right to a large class of its citizens, automatically, mechanically, and with no thought given to whether it is proportionate as punishment for an amorphous and partial list of crimes.” 

They added: “It is an especially cruel penalty as applied to those whom the justice system has already deemed to have completed all terms of their sentences. These individuals, despite having satisfied their debt to society, are precluded from ever fully participating in civic life. Indeed, they are excluded from the most essential feature and expression of citizenship in a democracy—voting.” [See end of story for link to decision.]

The case had been brought in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and others who represented six Mississippi convicted felons who had lost their voting rights. 

Another more recent, related Mississippi lawsuit challenging the lifetime voting ban claimed the ban violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. That lawsuit was finally decided in late July when SCOTUS did not take up an appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. 

That ruling had decided against the plaintiffs on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the relevant provisions in the state constitution were motivated by discriminatory intent and that any “racist taint” had been “cured” by amendments to the provision. 

The five-year delay in the August-decided case was apparently the result of the Fifth Circuit awaiting a ruling on the other Equal Protection case. Mississippi’s Attorney General Lynn Fitch said the state would seek a rehearing of the SPLC, et al. lawsuit before the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Florida’s lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of felonious murder or sex offence remains in place, as do such lifetime bans in the 13 other states that have them. As of this writing no Florida group, or group from any of those other states, has filed a comparable lawsuit to have that particular lifetime ban expunged.  

In late July the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC, https://floridarrc.com/) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida against State officials related to Amendment 4 passed in 2018. 

The intended goal of that amendment was to restore “the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation … [excepting] those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.” 

You may recall that at its first opportunity the Florida Legislature in the 2019 session passed implementing legislation that put significant hurdles in the way of felons who wanted to register to vote by requiring them first to “pay all fines, fees, and restitution” related to their conviction.

The July FRRC lawsuit contends “the defendants have created and perpetuated a bureaucratic morass that prevents people with felony convictions from voting, or even determining whether they are eligible to vote.” The lawsuit’s principal relief would require the defendants to “establish a reliable state-wide database that allows individuals with prior felony convictions to determine if they have outstanding LFOs [legal financial obligations]; the amount of any outstanding LFOs; the jurisdiction to which they owe any outstanding LFOs; and where payment may be made to satisfy any outstanding LFOs.”

The lawsuit points out that “the State of Alabama also disenfranchises U.S. citizens convicted of a wide array of felony offenses until they have completed all terms of their sentence, including outstanding fines, fees, restitution, probation, parole, and any other type of community control. But, unlike Florida, Alabama has established a centralized state data repository and unified process run by the Bureau of Parole and Pardons that advises any applicant within 44 days if the applicant is eligible to register to vote, and provides specific details explaining the basis for any denial …

If Alabama can create a process to confirm the eligibility of its voters, Florida should be able to do so too.”

Read the Fifth Circuit’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment ruling at tinyurl.com/Iguana1639

Read the FRRC lawsuit at tinyurl.com/Iguana1640

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