Bloomberg Allies Make $20 Million Push to Help Enfranchise 30,000 Florida Ex-Felons
Computer scientist Robert Montoye noted in a New York Times opinion piece Sept. 21: “Because of an 11th Circuit appeals court ruling on Sept. 11, an estimated 774,000 Floridians who have already served their time in jail or prison are not eligible to vote in the 2020 election until they pay the fines and fees associated with their sentences.”
The funds will flow to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), run by former felons, Bloomberg said. “The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and no American should be denied that right,” he said. “Working together with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we are determined to end disenfranchisement and the discrimination that has always driven it.” NBA star LeBron James is one of the major backers of the Coalition.
The money will aid tens of thousands of ex-felons who have served their sentences and had debt of less than $1,500, allowing them to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential and state election.
Until 2018, former felons in Florida were unable to vote, but state constitutional Amendment 4 re-enfranchised most of them. It excluded murderers and sex offenders.
However, a new law, which withstood a recent Florida Supreme Court challenge, made that right to vote conditional upon payment of all restitution, fines and costs, a serious challenge for a generally economically disadvantaged group.
Some news reports said that only Blacks and Latinos would have their fines and debts paid with Bloomberg’s money, but the FRRC specifically denied that.
Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by Florida’s criminal justice system. “African Americans account for nearly half of the 96,000 people locked up in Florida prisons while making up about 17% of the state population,” a 2019 story in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper said, to cite just one example. “Whites with half of the overall population make up 38% of inmates, while 13% of inmates are Hispanic.”
However, the majority of ex-felons whose voting rights stand to be restored are White. In a 2018 interview, Desmond Meade, chairman of the FRRC and himself a former felon and now a law school graduate, said most people “assume that this is only an African American issue, or it’s only African Americans that are impacted by this particular policy and in reality, the opposite is true…There are more people who are white, there are more people who are not African American, that are impacted.”
Bloomberg, a billionaire former Republican mayor of New York City, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination until withdrawing in favor of eventual nominee Joe Biden. He has separately pledged to invest $100 million in the pivotal Sunshine State to help elect Biden.
The law requiring payment of court fees, passed by a Republican state legislature, and signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, threatened to delay the efforts of advocates who fought for years to see voting rights restored for the more than 1 million ex-felons in Florida. Their efforts had resulted in Florida’s Amendment 4 passing with over 60% support in a statewide vote.
According to ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon, “Florida voters took a stand for fairness and voting rights, and to remove an ugly stain that has been in our state’s constitution since the Civil War era.”
Florida immediately announced plans to investigate “potential violations of election laws” over Bloomberg’s donation, said Attorney General Ashley Moody. She urged statewide prosecutor Nick Cox to work with Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As of press time, DeSantis was considering calling a grand jury to look into the matter.
Tampa attorney Michael Steinberg, who represents one of the plaintiffs in ongoing Amendment 4 litigation, told the Miami Herald that there is no legal issue with someone paying a released prisoner’s court fees, fines or restitution. “It’s no different than if someone gave someone a gift to pay their fines,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”