Just days after after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won a court victory to keep felons from voting until they’ve paid off fines, restitution and court fees, billionaire Mike Bloomberg has stepped in to help them pay off the debts.
The former Democratic presidential candidate has helped raise more than $20 million so that felons who completed their prison sentences can vote in the presidential election. Bloomberg also has pledged $100 million to help Joe Biden win Florida.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and no American should be denied that right. Working together with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we are determined to end disenfranchisement and the discrimination that has always driven it,” Bloomberg said in a written statement.
A federal appellate court ruled on Sept. 11 that in addition to serving their sentences, Florida felons must pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain their right to vote. The case could have broad implications for the November elections. Florida has 29 electoral college votes that are crucial to President Donald Trump’s hopes of staying in the White House.
Under Amendment 4, which Florida voters passed overwhelmingly in 2018, felons who have completed their sentences would have voting rights restored. Republican lawmakers then moved to define what it means to complete a sentence.
In addition to prison time served, lawmakers directed that all legal financial obligations, including unpaid fines and restitution, would also have to be settled before a felon could be eligible to vote.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had raised about $5 million before Bloomberg made calls to raise almost $17 million more, according to Bloomberg staffers.
“We’re just so excited and grateful for everybody that is taking part in this effort to free the vote and allow people whose voices are currently not able to be heard to be heard,” Neil Volz, with the coalition told WINK News.
The money is targeted for felons who registered to vote while the law was in question and who owe $1,500 or less. That accounts for about 31,100 people, the staffers said. In a state that decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes, that could be critical in a year when polls show Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in a dead heat.
“This is really precedent setting where you have an outside billionaire who is going to come in to use his wealth to impact that election,” Peter Bergeron, an FGCU professor of political science, told WINK News.
Bergerson said, if Bloomberg helps 30,000 more people vote, that could make a difference in a traditionally tight state. But he also said there is no sure thing.
“There’s no guarantee they’re going to vote, and there’s no guarantee how they’re going vote,” Bergerson told WINK News.
Organizers for the coalition say they aren’t targeting people registered with a particular political party.
“To hell with politics, to hell with any other implications or inuations, at the end of the day it’s about real people, real lives, American citizens who want to be a part of this,” said Desmond Meade, the group’s executive director. “People with felony convictions have had their voices silenced for so long.”
The group said other donors include John Legend, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, Ben & Jerry’s, Levi Strauss & Co., the Miami Dolphins, the Orlando Magic, the Miami Heat and Stephen Spielberg.
“This isn’t a political issue,” Volz said. “This isn’t a partisan issue. We simply want people step into their communities and be heard.”