A federal appeals court has ruled that Florida’s 135-year-old ban on ex-felons’ voting rights may be racially discriminatory. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ordered a trial in Miami for hundreds of thousands of former convicts seeking to restore those rights, the Miami Herald reports. The appeals court panel ruled 2 to 1 that Florida must prove that the state legislature did not discriminate in 1968 against blacks when it amended a post-Civil War law barring ex-felons from voting.
“This is a fantastic win for a huge number of people,” said Jessie Allen of the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, which brought the class-action lawsuit on behalf of 613,000 former felons. “It’s a great day for democracy in Florida.”
The panel reversed Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who had said no trial was necessary because there was no evidence of racial bias when legislators readopted the felon-disenfranchisement law 35 years ago. Appellate Judges Rosemary Barkett and John Fullam disagreed, saying the evidence showed “Florida’s disenfranchisement of felons has a disproportionate impact on African Americans.”
The case may not be resolved before next fall’s presidential election. The Herald says the decision marked a stunning turning point in the case, which was filed before Florida’s divisive 2000 presidential election ended with George W. Bush winning the state — and the White House — by only 537 votes over Al Gore.
“The mass disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Florida citizens is the overriding civil-rights crisis in our state, and we look to the courts to end this shameful injustice,” said Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has lobbied for ex-felons’ voting rights.
Much could be riding on the outcome of the new trial. If ex-felons could vote again, they might cast ballots primarily for Democratic candidates.