TALLAHASSEE — 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.
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.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and no American should be denied that right,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “Working together with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we are determined to end disenfranchisement and the discrimination that has always driven it.”
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.