Battle over voting rights of felons intensifies in Florida

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The battle over felon voting rights in the critical swing state of Florida is heating up with the Oct. 5 registration deadline in the state fast approaching.

Voting rights activists are scrambling to pay off the debts of felons who have completed their sentences following a court decision requiring them to clear all fines and fees before they’re able to vote. Critics have argued the law amounts to a poll tax, and groups and individuals have sought to raise money to help pay off the debts, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has raised millions for the effort and has paid off monetary obligations for at least 32,000 felons to date, according to The Washington Post.

Bloomberg’s involvement has drawn criticism from Republicans, with state Attorney General Ashley Moody asking law enforcement to investigate the fundraising.

The issue has taken on a new urgency as the election between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden reaches its final stretch. Florida, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, is seen as a crucial swing state for both candidates. Recent polls have shown a close race there between the two candidates.

Trump waded into the battle in a tweet on Sunday.

“Wow, nobody realized how far Mini Mike Bloomberg went in bribing ex-prisoners to go out and vote for Sleepy Joe,” Trump said, reviving his nickname for the onetime Democratic presidential candidate. “He is desperate to get back into the good graces of the people who not only badly beat him, but made him look like a total fool. Now he’s committed a serious crime!”

The origins of the dispute can be traced back to the 2018 midterm elections, when Florida voters approved Amendment Four, which restored voting rights to more than a million felons who had completed their sentences.

But Republicans in the state passed a subsequent law in 2019 requiring felons  who have completed their sentences to pay any fees, fines and costs connected to their prior convictions in order to get the green light to vote. Voting rights groups criticized the GOP-backed law, arguing it was the equivalent of a poll tax.

A federal judge ruled in favor of civil rights groups earlier this year, but an appeals court overturned the decision in a 6-4 ruling earlier this month.

Bloomberg’s team responded by announcing it had raised more than $16 million to help pay off the debts. His effort, a partnership with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), targets 32,000 felons who have registered to vote and owe less than $1,500 in restitution payments. Bloomberg advisers told Florida Politics the group they’re targeting makes up roughly 31,100 people.

“Our mission is to tear down barriers for people with past felony convictions, no matter what their background or political affiliation is. That’s what we’ve been doing for years. Amendment Four came out of those values,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the FRRC.

However, Republicans argue that these efforts to raise money to pay off fines warrant an investigation because the money is incentivizing the group to vote, pointing to Bloomberg’s status as a Democrat who has pledged to spend $100 million in the state on Biden’s behalf. Bloomberg’s initiative is also seen as an effort to boost Biden because it targets mostly Black and Latino voters, groups with which Biden holds an advantage.

“It’s one thing to voluntarily say we’re going to pay the fines and other costs that a felon owes, but if there’s any connection between that payment and the person registering to vote, then that’s a violation of federal law,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has said it is not a poll tax and Florida can enforce this provision,” he continued. “You can’t offer to pay somebody to get them to register to vote.”

Moody last week sent a letter to the FBI and state authorities requesting them to investigate Bloomberg, purportedly at the urging of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). The letter came after Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) urged a probe into Bloomberg’s fundraising, calling it a “bribe.”

“It’s not every felon. It’s just those which they have specifically identified as the Biden voters,” Gaetz said last week on Fox Business. “That’s offering a bribe, an inducement, for someone to behave a certain way in voting.”

Bloomberg spokesperson Jason Schechter hit back at the calls for an investigation.

“This transparent political ploy is just the latest example of Republicans attempting to keep Floridians disenfranchised,” Schechter said.

Supporters of the effort say it is nonpartisan and question the timing of Republican criticism, coming just weeks before the presidential election.

“The state certainly knows that the payment for LFOs [legal financial obligations] need not come from the individual, but it can come from a third party,” Julie Ebenstein, senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, told The Hill. “The timing is interesting that suddenly now there seems to be concern by the state that FRRC, a nonpartisan nonprofit, is assisting people to pay for LFOs.”

“The state has said all along that debts need to be paid for people to vote,” Ebenstein added. “Now they’re saying debts cannot be paid or should not be paid for people to become eligible. It just begs the question, is the point for Florida to collect debts or is the point to prevent people from voting?”

Amid the Republican criticism, there are questions as to whether the fundraising efforts will even have a substantial impact on the election, citing the lack of available information felons need to pay their debts in the first place.

“I don’t think the fundraising efforts to help ex-felons pay off their fines and court fees will have much effect in this election,” said Barry Edwards, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “The problem is the state doesn’t even know how much ex-felons owe in fines and fees. The state is saying, ‘You must pay off your fines and fees, but we can’t tell you how much you owe, good luck with that.’ ”

“It’s like the state set up a toll booth and won’t let people drive on it unless they pay the correct toll, can’t tell you want the toll is, and will stop you if you don’t pay the right amount,” he added.

This story was updated on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Tags 2020 election Donald Trump felons Florida Joe Biden Matt Gaetz Michael Bloomberg Ron DeSantis Voting
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