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Bloomberg Adds $16 Million To A Fund That Helps Florida Felons Get Chance To Vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Florida, a campaign to raise money to pay the fines and court fees of felons got a big boost this week - $16 million from billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Felons in Florida who have served their time can legally register to vote only after they have paid all court-ordered fines and fees. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, not everyone is happy that others are helping them pay their costs and register to vote.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Desmond Meade heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group behind the voter initiative known as Amendment 4. It overturned a Reconstruction-era law that prohibited most felons from ever regaining the right to vote. Under a law signed last year by Florida's governor, felons can't register to vote until they've paid all fines and fees imposed as part of their sentences. Undaunted, Meade's group has gone to work raising money to help felons pay those costs.

DESMOND MEADE: We've helped over 4,000 people be able to satisfy their legal financial obligations. And what we've seen so far is an average of about $1,000 per person.

ALLEN: Bloomberg's $16 million contribution gets Meade's group close to the goal of $25 million it set to get fines paid so people with felony convictions can register to vote by Florida's October 5 deadline. In a memo reported by The Washington Post, the Bloomberg organization said it's used donations to the fund as a cost-effective way of adding votes to the Democratic column. That spurred a reaction from Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, an outspoken Trump ally. On Fox News this week, he called on Florida's attorney general to investigate whether Bloomberg was violating Florida law.

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MATT GAETZ: It is a third-degree felony for someone to either directly or indirectly provide something of value to impact whether or not someone votes.

ALLEN: Florida's attorney general has now sent a letter to the FBI and the state Department of Law Enforcement asking them to investigate. The state's law requiring felons to pay fines before they can vote was recently upheld by a federal appeals court. Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, says in court, part of the state's defense was that if felons don't have the funds, others could always pay for them.

JULIE EBENSTEIN: I'm surprised to hear now that third parties who are generously willing to pay people's outstanding legal financial obligations, suddenly they're being accused of a crime for doing exactly what the state suggested was perfectly legitimate.

ALLEN: Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, says his research indicates nearly 775,000 felons in Florida have outstanding fines preventing them from voting. While he supports the efforts of Meade's group, he says it would take at least a billion dollars to pay off the debt for all who need it.

DANIEL SMITH: And there's something fundamentally wrong about having to benefit from the largesse of an individual to have your voting rights restored.

ALLEN: Smith says there's little evidence helping felons register helps Democrats more than Republicans. Although African Americans are disproportionately represented in the group, the majority of felons with unpaid legal financial obligations are white. Desmond Meade says, while others are focused on the election and politics, for him something larger is at stake - helping people reclaim their place in society. He talks about a father and son who were stunned that strangers paid their outstanding fines.

MEADE: They were able to call the clerk directly, and the clerk was able to say, yes, sir, you have a zero balance. And once they heard that, both father and son started crying.

ALLEN: Like tens of thousands of others, Meade paid his fines and legal fees and has voted. But this week, he was back before Florida's governor and other members of the state's clemency board, asking for his past criminal offenses to be pardoned. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would only say he would take Meade's request for a pardon under consideration.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURTNEY BARNETT SONG, "DEPRESTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.