TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — 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 Restitution Coalition had raised about $5 million before Bloomberg made calls to raise almost $17 million more, according to Bloomberg staffers.
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.
Organizers for the group 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 version corrects the name of the group to Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.