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Mike Bloomberg raises $16 million to allow former felons to vote in Florida

Mike Bloomberg speaks in Palm Beach, Fla., on  March 3.
Mike Bloomberg speaks in Palm Beach, Fla., on March 3. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and his team have raised more than $16 million to pay the court fines and fees of nearly 32,000 Black and Hispanic Florida voters with felony convictions, an effort aimed at boosting turnout for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The money will fund a program organized by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to pay the fines, fees and restitution costs for former prisoners who are already registered to vote in Florida but barred by law from participating in the election because of those outstanding debts.

Bloomberg, who has committed at least $100 million to electing Biden in the state, raised the money from individuals and foundations over the past week, his advisers said. He saw the donations as a more cost-effective way of adding votes to the Democratic column than investing money to persuade voters who already have the right to vote, a Bloomberg memo said.

More than one million former convicted felons still face hurdles after being given right to vote in 2018. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We have identified a significant vote share that requires a nominal investment,” the memo read. “The data shows that in Florida, Black voters are a unique universe unlike any other voting bloc, where the Democratic support rate tends to be 90%-95%.”

The memo noted that Biden was polling worse among Cuban American voters than Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee, while winning other Hispanic groups by a margin of 3 to 1.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is a nonpartisan group that has been fundraising to return all former felons in the state to the voting rolls. Desmond Meade, the group’s president, said the group does not share Bloomberg’s goal of empowering only one political side in the upcoming election.

“Different people may give for different reasons, but we are in this for one reason, and that reason is to place people over politics,” Meade said. “We are concerned with people from all walks of life, from all sorts of politics.”

The 2020 election could all come down to Florida. And the outcome here could depend on what happens in the Tampa Bay area, whose demographics mirror America. (Video: The Washington Post)

He said that through separate efforts, his organization has raised about $7 million from about 44,000 donors to help pay the debts of citizens with felony convictions so they can return to the voting rolls. The average debt, the group said, is about $1,000.

After organizing by Meade’s group, Florida voters passed a statewide constitutional amendment in 2018 that gave former felons, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, the opportunity to vote in upcoming elections. The Republican-controlled legislature subsequently passed, and the Republican governor signed, a law that conditioned their return to the voting rolls on the payment of all fees, fines and restitution that were part of their sentence.

Subsequent court challenges upheld the power of the legislature to condition voting rights on the payment of debts by former felons. Judge Barbara Lagoa, who is under consideration by President Trump as a possible replacement for Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cast a concurring opinion on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the state law requiring payment of debts.

The Republican effort is expected to limit what some viewed as a political benefit to Democrats of the constitutional change, which passed by ballot initiative with 65 percent support. A study by the University of Florida found that nearly 775,000 former felons still owed money related to their convictions and would be barred from the voting booth by the law. The vast majority are too poor to pay their outstanding debts, according to evidence presented in court documents challenging the law.

Several philanthropic groups, including a nonprofit founded by the professional basketball player LeBron James, have since committed donations to pay the owed money. The Bloomberg effort, which his aides said will be pooled with about $5 million already raised by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is narrowly focused only on Black and Hispanic voters who are already registered to vote and whose debts are less than $1,500.

Bloomberg’s advisers identified that group as both likely to vote for Biden and more likely to vote than other groups of former felons.

“Mike wanted to get this done for two reasons,” said a Bloomberg adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “One, because it’s the right thing to do for the democracy. And two, because it immediately activates tens of thousands of voters who are predisposed to vote for Joe Biden.”

Bloomberg aides said the former New York mayor, who is worth more than $50 billion, had raised the money for this effort from others and that the sum would not count against the $100 million or more he has personally committed to spend on behalf of Biden in the state.

The Bloomberg memo pointed out that the 31,790 targeted voters, including 25,548 who are Black, are nearly equivalent to the margin by which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won election in 2018, and about three times as big as the margin that elected Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that same year.

It said Florida voters have largely already made up their minds about the November election, leaving “only a small margin of voters that are targets for persuasion.”

“We know to win Florida we will need to persuade, motivate and add new votes to the Biden column,” the document read. “This means we need to explore all avenues for finding the needed votes when so many votes are already determined.”

Meade said his group would be in charge of spending the money raised by Bloomberg and will continue fundraising to enfranchise more Floridians with felony convictions.

“No person really dictates how we are operating,” he said.