Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his team have raised more than $16 million to pay the court fines and fees of nearly 32,000 Black and Hispanic Florida voters with felony convictions, an effort aimed at boosting turnout for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The money will go to fund a program organized by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to pay the fines, fees and restitution costs for former prisoners who are already registered to vote in Florida but barred by law from participating in the election because of those outstanding debts.
Bloomberg, who has committed at least $100 million to electing Biden in the state, raised the money from individuals and foundations over the last 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%.”
The memo noted that Biden was currently polling worse among Cuban American voters than Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee, while winning other Hispanic groups by a margin of 3 to 1.
Florida voters passed a statewide constitutional amendment in 2018 that gave former felons, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, the opportunity to vote in upcoming elections. The Republican-controlled legislature subsequently passed, and the Republican governor signed, a law that conditioned their return to the voting rolls on the payment of all fees, fines and restitution that were part of their sentence.
The Republican effort is expected to limit the political benefit to Democrats of the constitutional change, which passed by ballot initiative with 65 percent support. A study by the University of Florida found that nearly 775,000 former felons still owed money related to their convictions and would be barred from the voting booth by the law. The vast majority are too poor to pay their outstanding debts, according to evidence presented in court documents challenging the law.
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 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.
Bloomberg’s advisers identified that group as both likely to vote for Biden and more likely to vote than other groups of former felons.
“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.”
Bloomberg aides said the former New York mayor, who is worth more than $50 billion, had raised the money for this effort from others and that the sum would not count against the $100 million or more he has personally committed to spend on behalf of Biden in the state.
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 Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won election in 2018, and about three times as big as the margin that elected Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that same year.
It said Florida voters have largely already made up their minds about the November election, leaving “only a small margin of voters that are targets for persuasion.”
“We know to win Florida we will need to persuade, motivate and add new votes to the Biden column,” the document read. “This means we need to explore all avenues for finding the needed votes when so many votes are already determined.”