Former Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg donated $16 million to pay the outstanding fees of nearly 32,000 Florida felons, thus restoring their right to vote in the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 to restore the voting rights of convicted felons who completed their sentence; the requirement to vote includes paying fines, fees and restitution. It is estimated that more than 775,000 felons are not eligible to vote due to outstanding fees.
Bloomberg’s donation went to the Fines and Fees Program at the grassroots organization Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. This program works to “break down barriers” to voting from financial obligations that arose from a felony conviction.
Bloomberg said, “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.”
The Washington Post reported that Bloomberg viewed his donation as a more cost-effective way of adding votes to the Democratic column. This comment got a reaction from Republicans and critics who questioned the legality of Bloomberg’s donation.
Section 104.061 of Florida Statues states, “no person shall directly or indirectly give or promise anything of value to another intending thereby to buy that person’s vote or corruptly influence that person in casting his or her vote.” Violation of this statute is a third-degree felony.
Critics claim that Bloomberg’s donation classifies as something of value given to influence convicted felons to vote for Democratic candidates. They argue that Amendment 4 was designed for former felons to pay their debt to society and that outside parties should not be able to pay for them.
Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, notes that Bloomberg’s donation is not a new concept. She says that in court, part of the state’s defense was that if felons don’t have the funds, outside parties could pay for them.
However, critics say Bloomberg is exploiting a loophole in Amendment 4 that allows him to directly pay people to vote.
“Clearly, Bloomberg is using his money and power to tilt the upcoming election in November,” said Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer. “If he wants to make a political donation, there’s a process. Hiding behind voting rights groups appears to circumvent Florida law.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Florida Department of Law Enforcement asking for an investigation into Bloomberg’s donation to the FRRC.
There’s still a great deal of contention as to the interpretation of relevant law. Florida Statutes and United States Code prohibit giving something of value or making expenditures to a person to get them to vote, withhold their vote, or influence who they vote for.
Technically speaking, Bloomberg made a donation to an organization and not a person. Critics argue that the funds directly benefitted individuals, who are now eligible to vote, and therefore the law still applies.
Another disputed point is whether or not Bloomberg’s donation influences votes; critics say it does. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has spoken up on the issue. He said, “This is a specific inducement to a specific segment of voters to get them to vote a certain way, and I think it could be a crime.”
Supporters say that Bloomberg is not telling ex-felons to vote or who to vote for. Rather, Bloomberg is helping ex-felons overcome financial barriers to voting by paying their outstanding fees.
The requirement for ex-felons to pay fines, fees and restitution prior to being able to vote has become known as a modern-day poll tax. Supporters and civil rights groups have praised Bloomberg for his donation.
Desmond Meade, the President of the FRRC and a formerly convicted felon himself, says it’s less about politics and more about ex-felons reclaiming their place in society. He says the ex-felons the FRRC has helped are stunned that a stranger paid their outstanding fees to restore their voting rights.
There has been no word yet concerning the letter that Florida’s attorney general sent to request an investigation into Bloomberg’s donation. If a violation of the relevant Florida Statutes and United States Code is found, Bloomberg faces punishment of fines and imprisonment.
Featured image: Mike Bloomberg at a campaign rally in February 2020. Unmodified photo by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons License. (https://bit.ly/3hRHtmy)
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