A clever bit of gamesmanship by Democrats who’ve otherwise been thwarted in their attempt to return Florida’s many hundreds of thousands of felons to the voter rolls in time for the election. In 2018 Floridians passed a constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to anyone who’d been convicted of a crime other than murder or a sexual offense. That would have put a gigantic number of new voters in play, many of them poor and minorities, in a state that Trump won by a little more than 100,000 four years ago.
Can’t have that, Republicans said. So the state legislature passed a law stipulating that felons would only regain their right to vote if they paid off all outstanding fines and court fees related to their cases. That policy was savaged as a de facto poll tax; a lawsuit ensued, but the new statute was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Voting with the majority: Barbara Lagoa, one of Trump’s new SCOTUS shortlisters. According to WaPo, some 775,000(!) felons still owe money to the court system. They’re barred from voting unless and until SCOTUS itself says otherwise.
…or, of course, unless they manage to scrape together the dough to pay off their fines in time to vote in the upcoming election. Mike Bloomberg has vowed to spend $100 million in Florida to try to get Biden over the top, much of which will go to advertising and GOTV projects. But he and his team had a bright idea. What if they looked through the long list of felons with outstanding debt and just paid off the debts for people who owe only a small amount of money? And what if, instead of helping out every ex-con with a small fine still outstanding, they helped out only those ex-cons who are most likely to vote for Joe Biden, namely, black voters (and Latinos to a much smaller extent)?
For the comparatively low price of $16 million, Team Bloomy may have just added tens of thousands of votes to Biden’s eventual total. I wonder how many votes the same amount spent on advertising would have flipped, especially given how intense polarization is about Trump. A few hundred, maybe?
“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%.”…
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…
“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.”…
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.
An op-ed in the Times offers a fascinating what-if. What if this had happened before the 2000 presidential election?
In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes at the time because he captured 537 more popular votes of almost 6 million cast. Florida’s tough felon voting restrictions then disenfranchised an estimated 500,000 people.
As of 2019, Florida’s prison population was disproportionately Black: about half the prison population, compared with 17 percent of the state’s population. Eighty-eight percent of African-Americans voted Democrat in the 2016 presidential election. Had the state allowed felons to vote in 2000, Al Gore likely would have won Florida and hence the presidential election…
Florida’s voter registration deadline of Oct. 5 is quickly approaching, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a much clearer road to victory with Florida’s electoral votes than without them.
As noted above, Bloomberg’s group is targeting felons who are already registered to vote. But presumably, if they can find the money, they could expand this program to other black ex-cons who aren’t registered and get them on the rolls in the next two weeks.
Which raises a question: Exactly what sort of interactions are happening between the ex-cons whose debts are being paid and either Bloomberg’s group and/or the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition? If you go to sleep one night owing $1,500 to Florida’s court system and wake up the next day to find that a benefactor paid that debt for you, you’re surely going to ask why. Why would anyone be so generous? And even if no one tells you to your face that they’re trying to purchase your vote for Joe Biden, it’ll be clear enough from the press coverage what the deal is here. Quid pro quo: You’re indemnified on your fines and in return you go and cast your ballot for Joe. That sounds like a bribe, although it’s a bribe that was only made possible by the Florida GOP’s insistence on creating a new obstacle to Floridians’ attempt to restore voting rights to most of the state’s felon population.
A noteworthy statute:
(1) Any person who gives anything of value that is redeemable in cash to any person in consideration for his or her becoming a registered voter commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. This section shall not be interpreted, however, to exclude such services as transportation to the place of registration or baby-sitting in connection with the absence of an elector from home for registering.
(2) A person who by bribery, menace, threat, or other corruption, directly or indirectly, influences, deceives, or deters or attempts to influence, deceive, or deter any person in the free exercise of that person’s right to register to vote at any time, upon the first conviction, commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, and, upon any subsequent conviction, commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
This may explain why Bloomberg’s team is focused only on felons who are already registered to vote rather than those who could conceivably get registered before October 5. Under both sections of the statute, money paid to influence someone to register is a no-no — but it doesn’t say anything about money paid to someone who’s already registered.
How about this statute, though?
(1) Whoever by bribery, menace, threat, or other corruption whatsoever, either directly or indirectly, attempts to influence, deceive, or deter any elector in voting or interferes with him or her in the free exercise of the elector’s right to vote at any election commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084 for the first conviction, and a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, for any subsequent conviction.
(2) No person shall directly or indirectly give or promise anything of value to another intending thereby to buy that person’s or another’s vote or to corruptly influence that person or another in casting his or her vote. Any person who violates this subsection is guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. However, this subsection shall not apply to the serving of food to be consumed at a political rally or meeting or to any item of nominal value which is used as a political advertisement, including a campaign message designed to be worn by a person.
Since the debts are being paid up front and the newly re-enfranchised felons are then free to vote however they like, one *could* argue that it’s not really a “bribe.” Payment of the fines and fees isn’t contingent upon voting for Joe, it’s more like a gift which Team Bloomy is expecting will then elicit a reciprocal “gift.” But if a candidate were standing outside a polling place handing $50 bills to people as they walked in, that’s obviously illegal even though it could also technically be spun as a “gift” rather than a binding transaction. Makes you wonder if Team Bloomy shouldn’t have paid off the debts for a few white ex-cons too, just to make their intent here a teeny bit more plausibly deniable.
I wonder if someone’s going to try to sue. If Florida’s Republican establishment is willing to effectively block a constitutional amendment that was passed by the state’s voters, they’re surely willing to have a prosecutor somewhere up the chain go after Bloomberg about this.