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Lawsuit Challenges State On Felon Voting Rights

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TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for convicted felons filed a class-action lawsuit Monday against Florida officials, alleging that the state's process for restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences is arbitrary.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on behalf of seven convicted felons by the Fair Elections Legal Network and the Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll law firm, seeks to automatically restore former felons' voting rights.

Florida is one of just four states requiring felons who have fulfilled their sentences to petition to have their voting rights restored. The state's process prevents more than 1.6 million Floridians from voting, according to advocates of changing the process.

The lawsuit, which has not yet been certified as a class action, came as the Florida Supreme Court considers a proposed constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if felons who have completed their sentences and paid restitution to the state and victims should be able to vote without having to go through the cumbersome — and oftentimes expensive — clemency process.

The lawsuit alleges that the Board of Executive Clemency — which imposed more-stringent requirements for restoration of voting rights shortly after Gov. Rick Scott and a newly elected, all-Republican Cabinet took office in 2011 — has made "the process of voting rights restoration unconstitutionally arbitrary."

Under the system, felons must wait at least five years before seeking to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored.

According to the Fair Elections Legal Network, there is a backlog of more than 10,500 applicants seeking to have their voting rights restored, but the clemency board only hears an average of 52 cases per quarter, meaning it would take 51 years to handle the cases now in the pipeline.

Since Scott and the Cabinet changed the rules in 2011, fewer than 2,500 applications have been granted, compared to more than 155,000 in the previous four years. Ex-felons "must beg state officials to give them their rights back and this set-up violates our Constitution," Jon Sherman, senior counsel for the Fair Elections Legal Network said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

"The right to vote should be automatically restored to ex-felons at a specific point in time — the completion of a sentence — not whenever a politician decides you've earned it."

A spokeswoman for Scott said his staff is reviewing the lawsuit, "but when it comes to the restoration of voting rights for felons, Governor Scott believes that they have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored, and show restitution to the victims of their crimes."

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments last week about the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment. If the Supreme Court signs off — and if supporters can submit about 766,000 valid petition signatures — the initiative would go on the November 2018 ballot.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.