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Chandra Bozelko: Billionaires want to protect democracy? Help restore voting rights

Chandra Bozelko
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The current Democratic field contains two billionaires; both have been relentlessly accused of buying electoral support. Each has defended himself, saying his expenditures are really dedicated to democracy.

“To me, this is just an investment in America in the same ways I invest a lot of money in fighting tobacco and guns and all of the other things,” is how former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it on ABC’s “The View” this month. Philanthropist Tom Steyer posted on Facebook Jan. 18: “I would spend my last dollar to save American democracy in a heartbeat and never regret it for a second.”

If billionaires are buying up all things electoral, then they should buy some rights, voting rights, for people who face a financial barrier to voting in the form of unpaid fines or fees.

On Jan. 16, in the latest development in the Sunshine State’s scheme to scotch popular will, the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion on whether fines and fees were included in the completion of a criminal sentence. The court concluded that, for the purpose of determining voting eligibility, completing one’s sentence includes paying all fines and fees. The contours of a criminal sentence became an issue last year when the Florida Legislature curtailed Amendment 4, a ballot measure that restored voting rights to a majority of people with criminal records. Approximately 65% of the electorate approved the measure in November 2018.

All hope is not lost. The Supreme Court’s opinion was advisory and doesn’t determine the constitutionality of the statute. Litigation is pending that may result in restoration of votes. In October, a federal court issued a temporary injunction that indicated it will likely side with the plaintiffs and hold that ability to pay is not part of voting eligibility. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already appealed it.

Now no one knows whether a final judgment will be entered by Oct. 5, Florida’s deadline to register to vote in the presidential election. No decision will be ready by Feb. 18, the final day of registration for the primaries; indigent people who can’t afford their fines will not partake in the selection of the Democratic nominee. The law and the courts can’t fix this problem in time enough for the remedy to matter.

Poverty’s role in the criminal legal system is well-known. You can’t get much justice unless you have a lot of money. The easiest and fastest way to take money out of the freedom equation is to supply it. If you can’t beat ‘em, pay ‘em.

That’s why they’ve set up a fund in Florida. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition - the same organization that spearheaded and led the Amendment 4 campaign - is raising money to pay off some of these outstanding fines and fees where there is no other assistance available. They’re aiming for $3 million, but the truth is that more than “$1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018,” Florida Public Radio and TV station WLRN reported this year.

Bloomberg and Steyer could run afoul of the federal law on expenditures that influence voting if they paid these tabs. It’s a criminal offense to pay anyone to vote or not, or choose a particular candidate. I don’t think this would count, but prosecutors can get creative when they want to.

But the United States’ cup of billionaires runneth over and, luckily, criminal justice appears to be the preferred plutocratic playground. Philadelphia 76ers owner Michael Rubin and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, worth about $10 billion together, founded REFORM Alliance, an organization that wants to limit the number of people under supervision. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, philanthropist George Soros and the Koch family have dedicated much of their wealth to criminal justice; the Kochs underwrote the fight for Amendment 4. What’s a measly billion among them if it means that millions of people can vote?

I say if billionaires are going to throw money around to influence politics, they should come together and eliminate the outstanding balance of justice-involved individuals who won’t be allowed to vote because they don’t have the money to pay their tabs. If they want to save democracy, this is one of the best ways to do it.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.