I have one small piece of advice to offer the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, to which Michael Bloomberg has promised to deliver $16 million for its fund to clear former felons’ monetary debts so they can vote: Cash the check before you spend the money.
As is sometimes the case when the former New York City mayor, Democratic presidential hopeful and billionaire philanthropist draws attention to his extraordinarily deep pockets, there may be less here than the hype suggests. I certainly think Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is a bit overwrought in her call for federal and state criminal investigations into whether Bloomberg’s support of the initiative violates election laws or other statutes.
Of course, law enforcement can investigate practically anything at practically any time. Elected law enforcers like Moody sometimes do so when it suits a political purpose. But I will be very surprised if they find anything meriting prosecution in Bloomberg’s actions, or those of the FRRC. While some critics may be muttering about vote-buying or other perceived offenses, the beneficiaries of such financial aid would have to promise a quo in exchange for Bloomberg’s quid for a prosecutable crime to exist. I have met the people behind the FRRC, and I am confident they expect no such thing.
A quick recap for those who need one: Florida historically stripped all convicted felons of voting rights. They could regain their rights only through a process that was lengthy, cumbersome and seldom successful. In 2018 Floridians amended the state Constitution to restore voting rights to any convicted felon (other than those convicted of murder or sexual offenses) upon completion of “all terms of his or her sentence.” The Legislature then passed a bill stipulating that “all terms” include court-imposed fines and restitution. The legislation’s opponents characterized it as a modern-day poll tax, but a federal appeals court upheld the law a few weeks ago.
The FRRC and a host of allied groups – many of which are politically aligned with Democrats – have launched a fund to help otherwise eligible individuals pay their fines and other obligations in time to register to vote in this year’s election. The fund will focus on those who owe relatively small amounts ($1,500 or less). Time is growing short; Florida’s registration deadline is Oct. 5. The popular assumption, seemingly based on little evidence, is that such registrations will boost Joe Biden in his race against President Donald Trump. Florida is a big swing state that is crucial for the president’s hopes to prevail in the Electoral College.
Enter Bloomberg. He spent a reported $1 billion on his own presidential run, which achieved a smashing Super Tuesday victory in American Samoa – and nothing else. Although he has not donated directly to Biden’s campaign, Bloomberg has promised to spend up to $100 million in Florida to try to thwart the president’s chances there. He also “made calls,” according to an Associated Press report that cited anonymous Bloomberg staffers, which raised more than $16 million for the FRRC’s voter registration effort.
In the media game of telephone that passes for news reporting these days, this claim of a mighty Rolodex has sometimes transmuted into a belief that Bloomberg himself is giving $16 million to the FRRC. That belief seems to be what motivated Moody’s hyperbolic calls for a criminal investigation. But if it has actually happened, I have not seen anybody come out and say so. Even if Bloomberg did give $16 million to the FRRC, which then somehow uses it to pay – by Oct. 5 – the outstanding fines of enough convicted felons to potentially make a difference on Nov. 3, it still probably would not matter. Or if it did, it might actually help Trump.
Florida’s Black community is overrepresented in the population of ex-felons, but it is still a minority within that population. Assuming the FRRC does not distinguish between the Black and non-Black ex-felons it is willing to assist, it may end up restoring voting eligibility to more voters with whom Trump polls well (white voters lacking a college education, and many of Florida’s Latinos) than voters who lean Democrat. And in this pandemic-distorted election cycle, Florida Republicans are doing much better than Democrats in attracting new voter registrations. The net result could be more newly enfranchised votes for Trump than for Biden.
As to which ex-felons of the estimated 31,100 who have outstanding court debts of $1,500 or less will actually register and vote if given the chance, that’s a matter of pure speculation. The FRRC’s effort, while admirable, probably will not yield many voters either way in absolute terms. But given Florida’s history of cliffhanger elections, nobody takes anything here for granted. Florida decided the 2000 election by only 537 votes.
Some former workers on Bloomberg’s presidential campaign would likely join me in warning the FRRC that that his assurances should not be taken for granted. Many said they signed on to his late-announced, long-shot bid because they were promised continued employment through the election, regardless of how Bloomberg did in the primaries. Some went to court after they were let go when his effort collapsed. Some, along with other Democratic activists and leaders, loudly complained when Bloomberg received a prime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention last month.
In spite of the unproductive $1 billion he spent on his own campaign, Bloomberg is not known for being blase about where he applies his funds. He may be happy to take credit for raising $16 million from other people who may or may not deliver, but I wouldn’t count on him to make up any shortfall in his promise to the FRRC. In any case, his interest in Florida politics is apt to wane as soon as the state’s 2020 electoral votes are allocated. Go ahead and take his money, but don’t spend it until you are sure you have it.