At the request of the governor, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) on Wednesday ordered her office to open an investigation into whether former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Bloomberg violated state law when he raised more than $16 million to pay fines that would enable more than 32,000 convicted felons to regain the right to vote.
In a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Richard Swearingen and FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson made public on Wednesday afternoon, Moody said her initial review of Bloomberg was prompted by a request from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Moody concluded that based on “limited public information and law” it appeared that the allegations warranted “further investigation,” citing specifically to a 2016 advisory opinion from the Florida Division of Elections.
That opinion was prompted by a request from a political action committee (PAC), which asked whether it would be legal to offer money or gift cards to incentivize citizens “simply to vote, not to vote in a particular manner or for a particular candidate.”
The opinion concluded that Florida statutes §104.045 and §104.061 “explicitly prohibit ‘vote-buying’ and ‘vote-selling,” reasoning it would be illegal to “offer incentives for voting if the intent were to circumvent” prohibitions against the buying and selling of votes.
“A political committee can only spend money to influence the results of an election,” the opinion stated. “A political committee’s payment to an elector to vote could only be valid under chapter 106 if it were done to influence how that elector voted, which in turn would be illegal under §104.045 and §104.061. Therefore, a political committee could not lawfully make a valid expenditure to pay someone to vote.”
However, the money Bloomberg spent on paying the fines of ex-felons is not contingent upon them exercising their right to vote; the expenditure simply allows them to vote if they choose to do so.
Lawyers erupted over the Florida AG’s letter, many of them still outraged over a controversial Eleventh Circuit decision from two weeks ago upholding what challengers and dissenting circuit judges said was a “poll tax.”
Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the investigation was “ludicrous.”
“This is ludicrous. Florida is ‘vote selling’ with its pay-to-vote system,” she said. “Now they’re investigating those who satisfy their unconstitutional requirement by paying?!?”
There also does not appear to be a PAC involved, as the money is being used to fund a program organized by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which simply pays the “fines, fees, and restitution costs for former prisoners already registered to vote in Florida,” the Washington Post reported. The group’s president, Desmond Meade, told the Post that the politics of the convicts play no role in their mission.
“Different people may give for different reasons, but we are in this for one reason, and that reason is to place people over politics,” Meade said. “We are concerned with people from all walks of life, from all sorts of politics.”
Matthew Segal, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the Florida GOP’s continued efforts to prevent former felons from voting reflects the true purpose of requiring that all fines be paid.
“If you say people can’t vote until their debts are paid and then object to their debts being paid, you confirm that your true purpose was to prevent voting rather than to collect debt,” he tweeted.
Attorney and member of the New York Times editorial board Jesse Wegman relayed a similar sentiment.
“One of the potential charges is ‘offering incentives to vote,’” he tweeted. “In other words, FL Republicans are admitting that they are requiring the payment of fines and fees from indigent people precisely to make it hard or impossible for them to vote.”
Daniel Jacobson, a lawyer who formerly worked in the Obama White House, said DeSantis was “going full Jim Crow here.”
Read the full letter from Moody below:
[image via JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images]
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