Billionaire Michael Bloomberg recently announced he has paid off the court fines and fees for 32,000 black and Latino ex-felons in Florida, thereby allowing them to register to vote in the November elections. This was done in response to a recent ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which prevented ex-felons in Florida from voting until they paid back the fines, fees, and restitution that were part of their sentences.
According to Bloomberg, however, “The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and no American should be denied that right. Working together with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we are determined to end disenfranchisement and the discrimination that has always driven it.”
While Bloomberg’s feigned “generosity” may sound nice, it probably runs afoul of Florida law.
Specifically, Florida Statute, Section 104.061(2), states:
104.061 Corruptly influencing voting.—
(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.
In light of the law’s language, the question is whether the decision to pay the court fines and fees (something “of value”) of 32,000 specific ex-felons (namely blacks and Latinos) violates this statute? In other words, by focusing on these specific groups, is Bloomberg trying to empower one political party (Democrats) by bribing a certain group of people to vote a certain way? Does his conduct constitute an improper effort to buy votes or to corruptly influence a person in casting his or her vote?
Bloomberg, who has committed at least $100 million to electing Biden in the state, raised the money from individuals and foundations over the past week, his advisers said. He saw the donations as a more cost-effective way of adding votes to the Democratic column than investing money to persuade voters who already have the right to vote, a Bloomberg memo said.
“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%.
In other words, Bloomberg’s decision to help a specific “group” of ex-felons is seemingly intended to help only those he thinks likely to vote for Joe Biden and help the Democrats.
While it is unclear whether such conduct is permissible, a January 21, 2016 advisory opinion by Maria Matthews, director of Florida’s Division of Elections, provides some context and guidance. Matthews wrote:
Even the otherwise innocuous offering of an incentive simply to vote could run afoul of section 104.045 or section 104.061, or both, depending on the particular circumstances involved. That is, incentives could be offered to a voter in a way that would be designed to directly or indirectly cause the voter or a larger group of voters to vote in a particular manner.
Matthews then listed several examples where a person offering incentives to voters simply to vote could possibly violate the law. One such example is where “incentives to vote might be offered to a group of people known to be registered under a particular party affiliation.” In such a case, Matthews states, “it would be possible that the intent of the person offering the incentives could run afoul of section 104.061(2), Florida Statutes, in a way that would constitute ‘vote-buying’ or corruptly influencing voting.”
It’s unclear whether Bloomberg’s decision to pay the court fines and fees of 32,000 black and Latino ex-felons violated Florida or federal law. Which is all the more reason why it should be investigated by Florida’s attorney general. The risk associated with inaction is simply too great and could end up costing President Trump a state he needs in November.