The Florida Attorney General on Wednesday called on law enforcement officials to investigate recent fundraising efforts by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to pay court costs and other fines in order that those convicted of crimes can vote. The same effort has been championed by prominent figures including NBA megastar LeBron James.
The basis for an investigation was not immediately clear, but it came a day after Bloomberg announced it had raised $ 16 million for the effort. Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody said she began considering the matter at the behest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican. His letter, addressed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI, includes a Washington Post article that frames the $ 16 million transport in the context of Bloomberg’s efforts to boost Joe Biden in the state. It also included several state and federal statutes making it clear that someone cannot pay someone for their vote.
“Having first reviewed this limited public information and this law, it appears that further investigation is warranted. Accordingly, I call on your agencies to further investigate this matter and take appropriate action where appropriate, ”she said in the brief letter.
A Bloomberg spokesperson said the letter was shaped by politics. “This transparent political ploy is just the latest example of Republicans trying to keep Floridians disenfranchised,” the spokesperson said. Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and Trump ally, also called for an investigation on Tuesday.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) kicked off the campaign after Republicans in Florida passed a 2019 law that requires anyone sentenced to repay fines and fees ordered as part of their sentence before they can vote again. Republicans passed the law after voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved the repeal of a life voting ban for those convicted of felony the previous year, a move that is expected to expand the franchise to 1.4 million people in one of the largest extensions of the franchise in U.S. history. . The Republican law effectively gutted the reform: it is estimated that 774,000 people cannot vote because they owe money.
The FRRC does not ask about a person’s partisan affiliation when applying for financial assistance. Organizers told The Associated Press and The Washington Post that the effort was not targeting voters of a particular party.
“To hell with politics, to hell with any other implication or innuendo, at the end of the day it’s about real people, real lives, American citizens who want to be a part of it,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the group. . the AP this week.
“Different people can give for different reasons, but we’re here for a reason, and that reason is to put people above politics,” Meade told The Washington Post. “We are affected by people from all walks of life, from all kinds of politics.”
The federal laws cited in Moody’s letter have been rarely used, said Pamela Karlan, professor at Stanford Law School.
“That’s not to say that an overzealous prosecutor, keen to suppress the vote of returning citizens, wouldn’t try to prey on funders – or even citizens whose fees have been paid and who are trying. then to vote, ”she said. “But the idea that we should be using government resources to make it harder for people to vote is really offensive.”
Franita Tolson, a law professor at the University of Southern California, noted that Florida lawyers told the court that forcing people to pay back fines and fees was not a poll tax. Objecting to someone else paying fines and fees undermined that argument, she said in an email.
“There is cognitive dissonance between the state’s arguments throughout the litigation that the law requiring payment of all fines and fees before the vote is not a poll tax and its current position that payment by Bloomberg these fines and fees represent a type of vote buying, ”I told me. “Either it’s a voting tax or it’s not, but it can’t be one or the other.”
Moody’s letter suggests Florida may be more interested in creating barriers to voting than collecting unpaid debt, said Julie Ebenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped challenge the law. from 2019.
“Florida created an unconstitutional system that prohibits people from voting until their debts are paid. Now the state is opposed to the payment of these debts. The state appears determined to prevent the vote, rather than collect the payments, ”she said.
The FBI had not received an official copy of Moody’s letter by Wednesday afternoon, said Andrea Aprea, a spokesperson. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.