Former Mayor of New York and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has donated nearly $16 million to a Florida-based organization to help re-enfranchise ex-felons ahead of the 2020 general election. On Wednesday, the state’s Attorney General requested an inquiry in his donation, based on an earlier pledge by Bloomberg to help Joe Biden win the presidential race in Florida.
NPR reported Bloomberg’s massive donation to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The FRRC operates a fund that is paying fines and court fees for Florida’s ex-felons so they can vote this November.
This fund was created after a legal battle between Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and those in the state who were able to pass a voter initiative in 2018 that granted ex-felons these rights for the first time since the Reconstitution Era. The initiative, labeled “Amendment 4,” passed with 65% of the vote, and granted roughly 1.4 million ex-felons their right to vote.
However, the newly-elected DeSantis Administration, in Spring 2019, passed a law that would limit those able to vote to those who have already paid all applicable legal fines, thus barring roughly 774,000 ex-felons from voting. This statue, based around the amendment’s language that “all terms of their service “must be completed for the restoration of an ex-felon’s franchise, has been labeled by many as a quasi-poll tax against those unable to pay these fines.
Following the adoption of the statue was swift legal action. The Tampa Bay Times reported that, initially, US District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Amendment 4 does require financial obligations to be met, but not if someone seeking their franchise was “genuinely unable “to meet them. This was seen by many as a partial win for those fighting for the right to vote.
Soon after, Governor DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R-Fla.) began appealing the case. Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the statue limiting the scope of Amendment 4 was, in fact, constitutional. This left nearly half of the otherwise eligible ex-felons in need of money in order to vote.
All of this culminates in Mayor Bloomberg’s donation last week. The donation follows a contentious legal battle that has determined if roughly 1 in 20 adult Floridians can vote this November. However, the donation also follows Bloomberg pledging to spend $100 million to help former Vice President Joe Biden (D-Del.), the Democratic nominee, win the presidential race in Florida.
It was on these grounds that, on Wednesday, Florida’s Attorney General, Ashley Moody, requested an inquiry be opened into Bloomberg’s donation. The Guardian reports that Moody’s request to the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, asked for by Governor DeSantis, is based around a concern that Bloomberg’s donation works as a form of bribery to voters. The concern is that, in donating to restore voting rights, Bloomberg is essentially bribing voters to vote for Biden.
A spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg responded, “this transparent political ploy is just the latest example of Republicans attempting to keep Floridians disenfranchised.” It should also be noted that the FRRC does not ask questions regarding partisan affiliation of ex-felons applying for financial assistance.
Florida has a long history of being a close state. Since 1996, the state has always voted with the overall winner of the presidential election, with an average of just 2.8% separating Florida’s results from the national results. This trend is sure to continue in 2020, with the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregate showing Biden leading President Donald Trump (R-Fla.) by just 2.1% in the state, as of September 26, 2020.
With Florida’s status as a battleground in the limelight, as always, coupled with the existence of a large subset of the population potentially being added to voter rolls for the first time in 150 years, Florida’s election ought to be interesting. Thursday, ballots were sent out for the first time in many counties, marking the start for Florida’s general election.
Due to state-imposed deadlines, these prospective voters have until October 5 to pay the sum of their legal fees, in exchange for their franchise. While Mayor Bloomberg’s donation has the potential to help around 16,000 ex-felons vote (a number that may, in fact, decide the race), the donation has the potential to be held up in legal troubles just long enough to prevent these individuals from asserting their rights.
With just over a week until the deadline, voting rights for Floridians are up in the air, as they are in many close states. However, only Americans from November 4, 2020, will know the answers to two questions: did these individuals get their rights restored, and, if so, was it worth it?
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