Bloomberg, Others Rack Up $20M To Register 32K Florida Felons Deeming Them “Time Served”
A group trying to help felons sign up to vote in Florida says it has raised more than $20 million to pay off outstanding court debts for thousands of former prisoners seeking to register in a battleground state crucial to President Donald Trump’s reelection. Bloomberg, Others Rack Up $20M To Register 32K Florida Felons Deeming Them “Time Served”
Billionaire and former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg is among those who have helped with a surge in fundraising for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in the 10 days since a federal appeals court upheld registration restrictions put in place by the state’s felon voting law. The group had just recently crossed the $5 million mark but the help from Bloomberg and others — including entertainers such as John Legend — pushed them to their latest milestone. Florida’s registration deadline is in less than two weeks.
Bloomberg’s decision to funnel money into paying off court debts came shortly after he also pledged to spend $100 million to help defeat Trump in Florida. Trump narrowly won the state with less than 113,000 votes four years ago and both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are in a push to find any advantage that helps them in the margins.
Florida’s voter registration deadline is Oct. 5 and as many as 775,000 felons may have outstanding court debts — which include fines, fees and restitution — that preclude them from registering under the law passed last year by the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
Neil Volz, the coalition’s deputy director, said the group had already paid off fines and fees for nearly 5,000 people so far and averaged to about $1,000 per person. He said that the average could drop because “our goal is to help as many people as fast as possible” but he said the infusion of new help could lead to 20,000 people having their legal financial obligations paid off.
Voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which ended the state’s lifetime ban on voting for most former prisoners. GOP legislators contended they were clarifying the law, but their legislation drew an immediate lawsuit from a group of ex-felons represented by voting rights and civil rights groups. A lower court judge threw out most of the law as unconstitutional, saying that part of the measure was an unconstitutional poll tax.
But earlier this month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law on a 6-4 ruling, handing a significant victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature. One of the judges who voted to uphold the law is Barbara Lagoa, who is now a contender for the U.S. Supreme Court after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had previously received support from people such as NBA superstar LeBron James before the ruling. But coalition leaders say that the court ruling has sparked a huge outpouring of aid and they have now taken 44,000 donations in total.
“This outpouring of support for returning citizens is reminiscent of the type of support we received from people from all walks of life during our Amendment 4 campaign,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the coalition. “Just as in our campaign, this effort is about placing people over politics. The democracy that we envision is not one where an American is forced to choose between putting food on the table or voting.”
Bloomberg’s contribution to the coalition was first reported by The Associated Press.
Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg were rivals in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary; now, Bloomberg is one of Biden’s most generous donors and is fighting to help him win Florida in the general election — and that includes paying the fines of almost 32,000 Black and Latinx voters who have felony convictions.
Michael Scherer, in the Washington Post, explains that “Bloomberg and his team” have raised $16 million for “a program organized by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to pay the fines, fees and restitution costs for former prisoners who are already registered to vote in Florida but barred by law from participating in the election because of those outstanding debts.”
In Florida, many Democrats have argued that prohibiting people from voting because of those fines or fees is a form of voter suppression. But many Florida Republicans have disagreed — including Judge Barbara Lagoa, a far-right Cuban-American Republican who is being considered by President Donald Trump as a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18. Lagoa, Scherer notes, “cast a concurring opinion on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the state law requiring payment of debts.”
Bloomberg, who was a Republican during some of his time as mayor of New York City but is now a Democrat, believes that people who were incarcerated in the past shouldn’t be forbidden to vote because of fines — and Bloomberg, Scherer reports, saw that $16 million as a “more cost-effective way of adding votes to the Democratic column than investing money to persuade voters who already have the right to vote, a Bloomberg memo said.”
That memo read, “We have identified a significant vote share that requires a nominal investment. The data shows that in Florida, Black voters are a unique universe unlike any other voting bloc, where the Democratic support rate tends to be 90%-95%.”
However, the former New York mayor was already helping Biden in Florida before raising that $16 million and helping the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Bloomberg recently donated at least $100 million to helping Biden in Florida.
In 2018, Florida voters passed a statewide constitutional amendment that allowed convicted felons to vote in elections after they served their time — and the GOP-controlled Florida legislature, in response, passed a law saying that they cannot vote again if they have any unpaid fees or fines associated with their sentences. Democrats attacked the law as a blatant attempt at voter suppression.
In 2020 Election, Florida Felon Voting Limits Could Sway State Outcome
A Wall Street Journal analysis shows legal changes could block thousands from voting.
As the election nears in hotly contested Florida, restrictions affecting felon voting rights could block thousands from casting ballots, potentially altering the state’s outcome in the presidential race, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
Two years ago, a referendum gave an estimated 1.4 million people who completed sentencing terms including prison, parole and probation the right to vote. But last year, the GOP-led legislature passed a new law saying before they could cast a ballot, those people with felony records had to first pay all fees, fines and restitution related to their sentences. They could also seek to get a court to dismiss the debt or convert it to community service.
New data from researchers at Georgetown University Law Center shows the law could mean a large share of registered voters with felony records still face hurdles. The researchers identified about 14,000 people within this group who have registered to vote since the end of 2018, and among them at least 9,700, or 69%, still owed money, according to a Journal analysis of the researcher’s data.
Criminal-justice advocates sued the state and argued that adding a requirement to pay legal and financial obligations, like fees and court costs, were an illegal barrier to the ballot box. They won a favorable U.S. District Court ruling in May, but a federal appeals court ruling this month reversed that decision.
These would-be voters, who likely number in the hundreds of thousands, have faced difficulties in accurately figuring out what they owe with the registration deadline looming on Monday, advocates say.
“Several months ago there were several hundreds of thousands of returning citizens in Florida who went to bed at night thinking they could vote,” said Neil Volz, deputy director at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is raising money to help pay felony-related financial obligations for potential voters. “A couple of weeks ago those people were told they cannot.”
The new voters in the Georgetown data skew left, registering Republican at about half the rate of voters in the state, the Journal found. In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by about 113,000 votes.
The data is almost certainly an undercount because it is limited to people with outstanding fines or fees from felonies in only half the counties in the state who also served time in state prisons. It doesn’t count people whose felony sentences didn’t involve prison terms.
But their findings align with previous research based on data from all 67 counties, by a University of Florida researcher who testified for plaintiffs, which showed most Floridians who completed prison, parole and probation terms still owe money related to their cases.
Georgetown Law Professor Neel Sukhatme and recent doctoral graduate Alexander Billy are using the data to support a nonprofit organization and website they created, FreeOurVote.com, to help Florida voters identify fines and fees.
The issue gained more attention last week when Florida’s attorney general asked both state and federal authorities to investigate donations intended to pay off financial obligations for potential violations of election laws.
The letter followed news that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised more than $16 million for a rights-restoration coalition effort to help people with felony records pay their debts. The nonprofit coalition says it has raised $20 million overall from 66,000 people, which would be enough money to cover financial obligations for about 20,000 voters.
Jason Schechter, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, called the letter “just the latest example of Republicans attempting to keep Floridians disenfranchised.”
There is no statewide database of court fees. To find out whether they owe money, ex-cons generally must check with county-court clerks, though sometimes courts have failed to accurately record details of paid financial obligations. One study cited by the plaintiffs challenging the Florida law found discrepancies between clerk online databases and other law-enforcement reports in more than 75% of felony cases.
Before voting in the March Democratic primary, 44-year-old Christi Garrison said she called the state Division of Elections and went to the Broward County Clerk of Courts office to confirm she had no fines to pay. According to Ms. Garrison, who has five felony convictions related to drug charges from 1996 to 2000, she was told that her registration was active and that she didn’t owe money related to felonies.
County records reviewed by the Journal and FreeOurVote.org, however, show she owes at least $870 in fines and fees related to four of those convictions. “This can feel impossible,” said Ms. Garrison, who says she has been drug- and alcohol-free for 20 years.
If courthouse clerks had looked up Ms. Garrison’s case, they should have found the financial obligations, said Broward County Clerk of Courts Chief Operating Officer Dian Diaz.
Many potential voters are unaware of the new rule allowing them to register or may be afraid to register if they don’t know whether they owe fines or fees, said Cecile Scoon, vice president of the Florida League of Women Voters.
“Going back to the court system in any shape or form is like a rash for some of these people,” Ms. Scoon said. “There are a lot of emotionally bad experiences brought up for them just to step into that building.”
She is helping run the group’s education outreach, which involves training lawyers to help potential voters and mailing postcards, calling and sending text messages to about 100,000 people who appear to have no fines or fees connected to felony cases but haven’t registered to vote yet. More than 250,000 people may fall into this category, according to expert testimony in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Felon voting rights vary around the U.S. Felons in Maine and Vermont never lose their rights and can cast ballots from prison, and a majority of states automatically restore rights when people complete prison terms or postprison supervision. Florida is among four states that until recent years had lifetime voting bans unless a governor or government panel specifically restored rights. Among those states, governors in Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky have used their executive powers to broadly re-grant rights.
In Florida, the amendment passed through the 2018 ballot measure was seen as a way to lock in a permanent change that would represent the greatest expansion of voting rights since the U.S. lowered the voting age in 1971.
The GOP-led legislature the next year added restrictions requiring legal and financial obligations, like fees and court costs, be paid off, arguing they were needed to clarify the amendment’s language. Voting-rights advocates then sued the state, saying the requirements were an illegal barrier to the ballot box.
They won a favorable ruling in May from U.S. District Court judge Robert Hinkle, appointed by President Bill Clinton. His ruling was overturned this month in favor of the law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, by a 6-4 ruling in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that split along conservative and liberal lines, including support from five appointees of President Trump.
Mr. DeSantis “stands with victims and believes that ‘all terms’ of a sentence include all court fees, fines and restitution to victims of crimes,” his office said in a statement.
How people with felony records in Florida would vote is unclear. Some researchers believe restoring voting rights may benefit Democrats because Black people are disproportionately disenfranchised.
A 2016 study by the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates criminal-justice changes, estimated that about 21% of Black people in Florida were disenfranchised—largely because of their higher felony conviction rates—compared with about 10% of the overall population. In 2016, Black voters in the state overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton.
“I think that assumption is driving a lot of the political decisions” in terms of which party supports expanding or restricting felon voting rights, said Kevin Wagner, who chairs the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University.
The data reviewed by the Journal shows that the 14,000 voters with felony records registered as Democrats 50% of the time compared with only 19% as Republicans, in a state where Democrats hold only a slight registration advantage over Republicans.
The records come disproportionately from counties where Democrats already have large registration advantages, such as Hillsborough and Broward, but even in those counties, newly registered voters with felony records skew even more Democratic than the counties at large.
“I’m generally always wary of assuming voting patterns without data,” Mr. Wagner said. “There’s two issues: What would turnout actually look like, which we don’t know; and would the voting pattern be the same as we expect oftentimes on demographics?”
He believes confusion over the system may damp turnout among people with felony records. “Theoretically they could get their franchise back but do they have the time, effort and money? I suspect for many of them the answer is no,” he said.
There are worries votes by former prisoners could be fodder for postelection legal battles if the race is exceptionally tight and lawyers for the presidential campaigns believe enough people voted who shouldn’t have, due to money they owed that was never confirmed before the election, to influence the outcome.
“The state of Florida has essentially acknowledged that it itself is incapable of determining peoples’ eligibility under this law,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He was also a plaintiff’s attorney in the case against the payment requirements.
Ms. Garrison, the new Florida voter, said she is still motivated to get to the polls. She has reviewed her case with a pro-bono lawyer and was looking to pay off her fines after being contacted by the Journal.
“The people of the state voted to give us our rights back and then they turn around and do what they did,” she said. “The fact that it’s so difficult to get any information makes it all so much harder. Maybe if I could have voted before I would feel differently, but this is my right and I’m going to vote.”