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Voting rights groups speed payments to help ex-felons in Florida ahead of registration deadline

A group working to restore voting rights to former felons in the battleground state of Florida is racing to deliver money to court clerks to help pay off court fees and fines as a voter-registration deadline and Election Day itself fast approach.

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Fredreka Schouten
CNN — A group working to restore voting rights to former felons in the battleground state of Florida is racing to deliver money to court clerks to help pay off court fees and fines as a voter-registration deadline and Election Day itself fast approach.

But that effort alone may not be enough to make a difference in this year's election.

Leaders of the nonpartisan Florida Rights Restoration Coalition say an influx of donations in recent months -- aided, in part, by a big fundraising boost from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team -- has dramatically expanded their ability to help Floridians whose outstanding financial obligations have barred them from casting ballots.

So far, the group has raised enough money to help about 20,000 people pay their court debts.

"It's certainly going to help at the margins, getting some people registered, and it's the right thing to do," Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville, said of the new push to pay off outstanding legal bills.

"But this is not going to tip Florida to Democrats," he said.

Smith, who offered expert testimony in a federal trial over felony voting rights in the state, last year estimated that more than 774,000 former felons in Florida have outstanding fines and fees that prevented them from voting.

A recent federal appeals court ruling has left most of these potential voters on the sidelines ahead of November 3.

A "roller-coaster" ride

For nearly two years now, state officials and voting-rights advocates have battled in the courts and legislature over which disenfranchised ex-felons could cast ballots.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to some 1.4 million people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences. It marked the largest expansion of voting rights in the country since 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18, and had the potential to tilt the state's electorate to Democrats.

But Republican lawmakers and the state's GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to sharply curtail those numbers when they approved a law that defined "all terms of sentence" as including outstanding fines, fees and restitution. (Former felons also can get a court to waive the debt or convert it to community service.)

A federal judge in May ruled that the payment requirements amounted to an unconstitutional "pay-to-vote system." But in September, less than two months before Election Day, a narrowly divided federal appeals court overturned that decision.

Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said former felons in Florida have been on an "roller-coaster" this year.

"We went from a situation in which hundreds of thousands of returning citizens were eligible to vote to finding out a couple weeks ago that those same people were not going to participate in democracy," he said.

In a bid to boost turnout for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Bloomberg's aides recently announced that the former mayor and his team had stepped up to raise more than $16 million to help pay off the court fees and fines through the coalition.

The deadline to register to vote in Florida is Monday.

But Bloomberg's aides have said they believe the window might be longer because they hope to target a discrete pool of likely voters: Black and Latino former felons, who have less than $1,500 in fines and who may have managed to register to vote during a period when the Florida law was in flux or have indicated they are motivated to register. (A spokeswoman for the coalition said Saturday that the fines and fees paid so far have focused on those who are not registered to vote.)

Bloomberg's game plan in Florida extends far beyond this group.

The billionaire has committed to spending more than $100 million there, as part of his quest to swing the state and its 29 electoral votes to Biden.

Bloomberg's team recently announced a $40 million ad buy in the state, and a $4 million investment for initial canvassing efforts by three groups focused on reaching Black, Latino and underrepresented communities ahead of Election Day.

Florida, which President Donald Trump won in 2016 by nearly 113,000 votes out of more than 9.3 million cast, has long been a key battleground. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Recent polls show a tight contest between Trump and Biden in Florida.

This year, tens of millions of Americans will cast ballots by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, likely delaying final results for days or weeks as officials tally those votes.

But strategists working to help Biden say Florida could be crucial for another reason: averting pandemonium by helping to quickly put the Sunshine State and its electoral votes in the Democratic column. Unlike officials in some other battlegrounds, election supervisors in Florida can begin validating mail-in ballots weeks before Election Day.

"Unless this is a very close election, we will know who won Florida on Election Night," Kevin Sheekey, a top Bloomberg aide, recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

He said Bloomberg is trying "to avoid the national nightmare that will occur after the election as Trump tries to rip apart the valid voting by millions of Americans in vote-by-mail."

Nonpartisan push

Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told CNN on Wednesday that the latest batch of checks from his group to help pay off outstanding court debts would land with county clerks "within the next 24 to 48 hours." He believes the would-be voters should be able to register as soon as the clerk of the court acknowledges receipt of the payment.

But he emphasized his organization does not share Bloomberg's partisan focus and is not trying to sway the outcome of the presidential contest to benefit any candidate.

"This goes beyond this election," he said. "What our action is about, more than anything else, is making sure that every one of the 774,000 people who have outstanding financial obligations ... that we assist them and clear that pathway."

"If they have the desire to participate in our election, they won't be forced to choose between putting food on their kitchen table or voting or choose between paying their rent and mortgage and voting," he said.

Meade said Bloomberg has not personally donated to the effort, which has attracted the support of big-name sports figures, including Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and celebrities such as musicians Ariana Grande and John Legend.

In all, more than 80,000 people have helped the organization raise more than $20 million, he said. He said the group will continue fundraising.

Republicans target Bloomberg

But Bloomberg's effort stands out and has drawn the attention -- and ire -- of Republicans, including Trump, who recently accused Bloomberg of "bribing ex-prisoners to go out and vote" for Biden.

In an unusual move, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, also has asked FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to examine Bloomberg's actions as "potential violations of election law." She said she was acting on a request from DeSantis.

Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, told CNN last week that the agency still is undertaking a "review" of the issues Moody raised. "It's not a full investigation at this time," she said.

Jonathan Diaz, the legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center and a CNN election law analyst, said Bloomberg and others who have donated to or helped raise money for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, should not face any real legal jeopardy.

"They are not offering an incentive to people to vote or buying votes," said Diaz, who has represented ex-felons in the Florida case. "They are merely helping people have the option to register to vote, if they choose to do so."

Moody's push, he said, "is a scare tactic that's meant to discourage others from donating and meant to discourage people who could stand to benefit from those funds from applying for them."

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