Millions Raised to Pay off Debts so Floridians with Criminal Records Can Vote

William Freeman, a formerly incarcerated person who registered to vote recently, walks outside his polling station in Riviera Beach, Florida. Efforts to raise money so that people with criminal records in the state can vote have raised millions.

William Freeman, a formerly incarcerated person who registered to vote recently, walks outside his polling station in Riviera Beach, Florida. Efforts to raise money so that people with criminal records in the state can vote have raised millions. Lynne Sladky/AP Images

 

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The money, partially raised by Mike Bloomberg, will go towards paying off the court fines and fees of thousands of people with criminal records, allowing them to vote in the upcoming election.

An effort to raise money so that people with criminal records in Florida can vote in the upcoming election has come up with more than $21 million so far. That’s thanks in part to $16 million former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg fundraised this week for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. 

The money will be used to pay off the court debts of people with felony criminal records in the state who are required to fulfill all financial obligations of their sentence before they are allowed to vote. Bloomberg’s contribution itself is expected to pay off the debts of 32,000 Black and Latino people with criminal records, who are seen as crucial voters in the battleground state.

Florida is among three states, along with Alabama and Arkansas, in which people convicted of felonies are required to pay all legal financial obligations, including fines, fees, and restitution to crime victims, before they can regain the right to vote. (Fines are imposed on convictions of certain crimes as a punishment, while fees are intended to cover court costs.) Most other states either tie re-enfranchisement to the repayment of only certain fines or automatically allow people to vote again after they leave prison. Only three jurisdictions—Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.—do not disenfranchise people at all after a conviction, allowing them to vote while in prison or jail.

Florida is unique because many of the people barred from voting have decades-old convictions or never even went to prison, serving their sentences in community supervision, said Margaret Love, executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a group that tracks the state-by-state repercussions of a criminal record. Many people do not know they still owe money and can find it challenging to even look for that information—because Florida has no centralized database keeping track of who owes how much. 

“Other states that require payment for restoration of voting rights, like Georgia and Texas, focus on and keep track of the fines and restitution that are part of a sentence. In many criminal cases, those don’t even come up, since there are no victims for restitution and the crime carries no fine,” Love said. “It’s the fees and costs that are so pernicious and hard to track in Florida. The state has completely dropped the ball in being able to tell people how much they owe so they can vote without fear of prosecution.”

The issue of disenfranchisement took center stage in Florida in 2018, when a wide majority of voters approved a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the right to vote for people with felony convictions, excluding murder or sex crimes, after they had completed their sentences, including community service, probation, or parole after incarceration. Advocates believed the change would benefit more than 1.4 million Floridians, many of them Black and Latino. It was one of the largest expansions of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Following the vote, however, the Republican-led Florida legislature passed a law defining a sentence as including all legal financial obligations, meaning people with criminal records would have to pay off all fines, fees, and restitution before being able to register to vote. 

Numerous groups sued over the law after experts estimated that more than 770,000 people believed to benefit from constitutional amendment still owed money. The requirement to pay fines and fees hit Black people with criminal records the hardest, with more than four out of five still owing money.

In May of this year, a federal court judge found that Florida’s “pay-to-vote” law was partially unconstitutional. The court ruled that the state can condition voting on the payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay, but not if a potential voter doesn’t have the money to meet those obligations. The state appealed and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month in a 6-4 decision reversed the lower court order, concluding the state can define a sentence as the completion of all legal financial obligations.

Since then, voting rights groups have worked furiously to raise millions of dollars so that people with criminal records can vote. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led by formerly incarcerated voting rights advocate Desmond Meade, has been at the forefront of the movement and has directed efforts towards paying off the fines and fees of those who have registered to vote and owe $1,500 or less. The FRRC has raised $5 million independently.

“We’ve seen an amazing outpouring of support for returning citizens here in Florida, who unfortunately are forced to choose between putting food on their kids’ table or voting,” Meade told local news outlet Bay News 9. “It’s extremely difficult when someone is coming out of the system to even be able to pay a lot of these court costs or these fees or fines that have been associated with the conviction.”

Bloomberg, who endorsed Joe Biden after dropping out of the presidential race, this week fundraised to add $16 million to the pot. "The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and no American should be denied that right,” he said in a statement. “Working together with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we are determined to end disenfranchisement and the discrimination that has always driven it.”

Even with the influx of cash, Love said that voting rights groups still face an uphill battle identifying who owes money and how much because of the lack of a state database where people with criminal records can check their financial obligations. “No matter the amount of money raised, the state has still set up the perfect Catch-22 for people who want to vote,” she said. “There will be thousands of people who likely could pay and vote in this election but are unable to do so because of the extreme inefficiency of Florida's system.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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