Former felon Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office.
( AP Photo/John Raoux
Tanzina Vega: Yesterday marked the deadline for Florida residents to register to vote ahead of November's presidential election. One of the looming questions has been how many former felons in the state will be able to cast their ballots come November.
While Floridians overwhelmingly voted in favor of restoring voting rights to the state's formerly incarcerated population two years ago, Republican lawmakers have added an additional hurdle by implementing laws that require people to pay outstanding court fees and fines before they can vote.
Many activists have called this a modern-day poll tax, but a recent flood of donations and fundraising from people like Michael Bloomberg, LeBron James, John Legend, and Ariana Grande have poured into the state in an effort to get as many former felons registered to vote and help pay some of those debts. For more on this, I'm joined by Patricia Mazzei, Miami Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Patricia, glad to have you with me.
Patricia Mazzei: Hi, Tanzina. Thank you.
Tanzina: Yesterday was the deadline for voter registration in Florida. Do we know how many formerly incarcerated people have already registered to vote?
Patricia: We don't. We know that as of May 85,000 applications had come to the Department of State's division of elections and had not yet been processed, but we do not have an update on how many of those have gone through the system, nor how many people have successfully applied since then.
Tanzina: We know as we mentioned at the top that part of this, there's one thing of getting people registered to vote, there's another thing about those who are registered to vote, who can actually pay off their fees and fines and associated debts that come with their former incarceration in order to get there. What's the process, Patricia, for getting people past that to pay off those debts? Is there a lot of red tape?
Patricia: It's been very challenging for former felons because there is no uniform system in the state to even find out how much money somebody owes. In some cases, people have records in various counties, and they have to go county by county to find out-- Some of this debt is very old. To find out how much they owe and, in some cases, which collection agency owns the debt now.
There are many steps to doing this and, of course, the first step is finding out how much you owe. The second is trying to get enough money to pay it off, which is where all those donations come in.
Tanzina: Are people still confused about whether they can vote or what the process is to get them to vote, and we're specifically talking about formerly incarcerated folks here?
Patricia: Yes. Remember that in 2018, 65% of Florida voters passed this amendment, but the hard work basically started then for canvasses to go out and let former felons know they were even eligible. It's not like the state sent out a letter to all these folks to let them know that this amendment had passed.
I actually joined some canvassers last week and they go to neighborhoods where they know that there is a high felon population and knock on doors and ask, are you a felon? Do you know anybody who is a felon, and in many cases, people just remember being told in court or in prison, that they lost their rights to vote and they do not know that they might be eligible, even if they have no outstanding court fines and fees.
There's an estimate that some 250,000 felons don't owe anything to the courts, they could have been eligible anytime after amendment four went into effect and they still don't know that they had the opportunity to go vote again.
Tanzina: It's 250,000 people, that's a lot of people. We heard at the top, Patricia, that there are some big names, including former presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, LeBron James, and others have funneled millions of dollars into voter registration efforts in the state of Florida. How has that money been used so far?
Patricia: The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is raising this money. They are the people who championed this amendment and put it on the ballot and they have been trying to find felons and let them know that the money is available. They say they've had 88,000 donations, they're trying to get up to $25 million. They say they have about 20 million, and each payment to each applicant is about $1,000, according to the coalition.
The $25 million they're hoping to raise could help 25,000 people, which is not a lot when you consider that the estimates run from a million to 1.4 million former felons in Florida, but this is a state where very small margins tend to decide elections. They think that helping any of these folks pay back their court fines and fees and then urging them to register and finally to actually vote would be potentially a real change for the Florida electorate.
Tanzina: Once again, these funds are largely being used to help people pay off those fees and fines, the outstanding debt that they have, so they can then get to the polls and cast their ballot, right?
Patricia: That's correct. The folks getting this money are not obligated to either register to vote or to vote, but just they're trying to help get them to that point where they're actually eligible to overcome that hurdle imposed by the legislature last week that you've talked about. [crosstalk]
Tanzina: How have Republican officials in the state responded to this effort because that really flies in the face of what they've decided?
Patricia: Well, the State's Attorney General Ashley Moody, who is a Republican elected statewide, she has called for an investigation by the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. She has suggested as have some other Republican members of Congress, that this is some sort of inducement, illegal inducement to raise all this money for the former felons, but what lawyers have told us, including academics is that because the money is to pay off fines and fees, which is money that goes to the state, and not actually for any vote exchange, that they don't believe that there is a problem here, and we do not know, we should say, if the FBI or the FDLE have actually taken up the Attorney General on her suggestion.
Tanzina: Patricia, we've got about a little over a minute to go, and I just want to understand here. It seems like the Florida Legislature generally is spending a lot of time and money and effort now in trying to involve the FBI in really preventing this group of people from getting to the polls, despite what 65% of Floridians decided two years ago that this population should be allowed to vote. Why is the Florida Legislature so intent on focusing so much effort on preventing this community from casting their ballot?
Patricia: What they say is that the amendment to the state constitution required the fulfillment of a person's entire sentence and that a sentence is not just limited to time in prison and parole, but also anything that they owe the courts.
What their critics say is that they worry that this felon population will lean Democratic and that this is the biggest presidential battleground state in the nation and they're concerned that the balance might tilt towards the Democrats. We don't actually have studies that show what leanings felons have? We know that they just tend to follow what most other Floridians do, which is that there is an increased tendency to register without political party affiliation, but that is where the crack of the tension is.
Tanzina: We're going to have to leave it there, Patricia. Patricia Mazzei is Miami Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Patricia, thanks for your reporting.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.