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Rep. Gaetz Calls for Investigation After Bloomberg Pays Florida Felons’ Debts To Clear Them for Voting

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  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised $16 million to pay outstanding fees for 32,000 felons in Florida, making them eligible to vote in November.
  • The move comes about a week after an appeals court upheld a law that requires felons to pay all outstanding fees before they can vote, effectively preventing hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots in the crucial swing state. 
  • That court ruling follows years of legal battles over a ballot measure passed overwhelmingly by Florida voters in 2018 which allowed most felons to vote after they completed their parole and probation periods.
  • Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz claimed Bloomberg’s actions were illegal, saying they are considered providing “something of value to impact whether or not someone votes,” and called for the matter to be investigated.

Florida Voting Rights 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) claimed Tuesday that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg acted illegally when he helped raise $16 million to cover the court debts of felons in Florida so that they could be eligible to vote in the November election.

Bloomberg’s contribution comes after a years-long legal battle in Florida concerning the voting rights of felons.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2018 to end the state’s lifetime ban on most felons voting. That measure, known as Amendment 4, effectively restored the voting rights of felons who had completed their parole and probation periods, with the exception of those who had been convicted of sex crimes or of murder. Around 1.5 million people —  nearly 10% of the state’s adult population — were given the ability to vote.

Despite the fact that ending the ban had bipartisan support among Florida voters, shortly after Amendment 4 took effect, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation requiring felons to pay off all outstanding debts in order to be eligible to vote, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in June 2019.

Under the law, roughly 775,000 felons still who owed fines related to their convictions would not be able to vote until they paid them off. That number included some of the estimated 85,000 who had already registered to vote since Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019.

However, the state offered almost no assistance for felons to determine how much they owed, or even if they owed anything at all. Officials even explicitly said it would take around six years to make a database for felons to look up their debts.

The Republican’s law immediately faced a number of legal challenges, and in May of this year,  district court judge Robert Hinkle struck down the law, ruling that it was an unconstitutional “pay-to-vote system.”

In his decision, Hinkle argued that an “overwhelming majority” of the felons would not be able to pay their debts or even figure out how much they owed. He went so far as to say that the law amounted to a poll tax.

However, a federal appeals court blocked his order from going into effect while it considered the case, thus effectively allowing the law to stay in place. In July, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the federal appeals court’s decision to block felons from voting while they decided the case.

Then, just over a week ago, the appeals court delivered its final judgment, deciding in a 6-4 ruling that the Republican’s law was not unconstitutional, and that felons would be required to pay fees in order to vote.

Bloomberg’s Donations

The move prompted significant outrage, and civil rights groups representing the felons said they would keep fighting.

But with just weeks to go before the election — and even less time before Florida’s Oct. 5 voter registration deadline — it would be almost impossible for yet another full-scale legal battle to be resolved in their favor.

With little hope for any kind of sweeping legal change, many people instead began paying the fines felons owed so that they could vote. The effort, which has been spearheaded by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), specifically focuses on Black and Hispanic voters who are already registered and who owe debts that are less than $1,500.

According to the FRRC, the list of people who have donated to their cause includes Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and John Legend. 

The largest donation so far, however, appears to be from Bloomberg and his team. The contribution, which the former mayor announced in a statement Tuesday, comes just after he pledged to give at least $100 million to elect Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Florida.

According to a memo accessed by The Washington Post, Bloomberg viewed the contribution as a more cost-effective way to get more Democratic votes in the state than persuading other voters.

“We have identified a significant vote share that requires a nominal investment. 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 allegedly read.

Although Bloomberg’s efforts are political, Desmond Meade, the president of the FRRC, emphasized in a statement to The Post that the group is nonpartisan and does not share Bloomberg’s goal of encouraging just one political party.

Gaetz Claims Bloomberg’s Donations are Illegal

While Meade said Bloomberg’s donation does not dictate how the FRRC is operating, others, including Gaetz, have raised legal questions regarding the move.

“[Under Florida law] it’s a third-degree felony for someone to either directly or indirectly provide something of value to impact whether or not someone votes. So the question is whether or not paying off someone’s fines and legal obligations counts as something of value, and it clearly does,” the representative explained when speaking with Fox New’s Sean Hannity Tuesday night.

“If Michael Bloomberg was offering to pay off people’s credit card debts, you would obviously see the value in that. When you improve someone’s net worth by eliminating their financial liabilities, that’s something of value.”

“I believe there may be a criminal investigation already underway of the Bloomberg-connected activities in Florida,” he added, noting that he had spoken with Florida’s Attorney General.

The existence of a criminal probe has not been confirmed by any law enforcement officials. Bloomberg, for his part, has not yet responded to the accusations.

In a matter as politically charged as felon voting rights, it is probable that both sides will pull out all the stops. Especially because, in a state as heavily contested as Florida, adding felons to the voter rolls could actually sway the election.

In 2016, President Donald Trump only won Florida in 2016 by 1.2 percentage points — less than 113,000 vote difference. Right now, polls from the state show Trump and Biden in a dead heat.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Politico) (The New York Post)

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Federal Court Throws Out Alabama Congressional Map, Citing Racial Gerrymandering

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The judges ruled that the Republican-held legislature gerrymandered the map so the state only had one Black-majority district despite Black residents composing 27% of the state’s population.


Alabama Ordered to Redraw Map

A panel of federal judges tossed Alabama’s new congressional map on Monday, ruling that the current version significantly weakens the voting power of Black residents.   

In their decision, the three judges noted that while about 27% of Alabamians are Black, the map drawn by the Republican-led legislature after the 2020 census was gerrymandered to leave just one of the state’s seven districts with a Black majority.

“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the judges wrote. “We find that the plaintiffs will suffer an irreparable harm if they must vote in the 2022 congressional elections based on a redistricting plan that violates federal law.”

As a result, the panel also ordered state lawmakers to redraw their map so that it includes “two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

The legislature was given 14 days to redo their map before they appoint a special master to do so.

Ongoing Legal Battles

Shortly after the ruling, a spokesperson for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement that his office “strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and will be appealing in the coming days.” 

According to reports, the matter could ultimately go to the Supreme Court, which would decide whether lawmakers can draw maps that are gerrymandered along racial lines.

The high court ruled in 2019 that federal courts do not have the power to block congressional maps that are gerrymandered to skew districts in a partisan manner unless a state’s constitution explicitly prohibits such gerrymandering. The justices did keep parts of the Voting Rights Act that ban racial or ethnic gerrymandering, which the federal panel claimed was the case in Alabama.

Alabama’s congressional map is not the only one drawn by Republicans that has been thrown out in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Ohio’s Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw a map that would have given Republicans 12 congressional seats and Democrats just three despite the fact that recently the GOP has only won about 55% of the popular vote statewide.

The state’s high court ruled that the map clearly violated a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018 that effectively banned partisan gerrymandering.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (AL.com)

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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Affirmative Action Cases at Harvard and UNC

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The decision to take up the two cases marks the first time affirmative action will go before the high court’s latest conservative-majority bloc.


SCOTUS Takes on Race-Conscious Admissions, Again

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will again consider whether race-conscious admissions programs at universities are legal in two cases that could have serious implications for affirmative action.

The two lawsuits center around admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), both of which were brought by the conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions.

The Harvard case started in 2014 with a lawsuit that claimed the school discriminated against Asian American students by effectively creating a quota for their admission. It also alleged the school a subjective standard to measure personality traits like likability, courage, and kindness.

The Ivy League school denied the allegations, claiming the challengers used incorrect statistical analysis and broadly arguing that race-conscious policies are legal.

In the case against UNC, the group alleged that the school discriminated against white and Asian applicants by giving preference to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students.

The university, for its part, argued that its policies create more diversity among its student body, also echoing Harvard’s argument that such rules are legal under decades of Supreme Court precedents.

Past Precedent Up in the Air

Lower courts ruled in favor of both schools, finding they did indeed comply with Supreme Court decisions.

But in taking up these two cases, the high court’s conservative majority will now examine whether race-conscious admissions are legal at all. The move could decide the future of affirmative action and undermine more than four decades of precedent on the use of race in college admissions.

The last two times the high court took up cases regarding affirmative action, the justices upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious programs by slim majorities. Now, those majorities have been replaced by a conservative bloc that includes three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump.

According to reports, the justices will likely hear the cases in October. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (NPR)

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Pelosi Reverses Course, Signals Openness to Stock Trading Ban for Congress

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The move comes as public and bipartisan support for legislation banning Congress members from stock trading has grown in recent weeks.


Pelosi Backtracks on Member Trading

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) on Thursday signaled openness to legislation that would ban members of Congress from trading stocks, reversing her previous position on the matter.

“I do come down always in favor of trusting our members,” Pelosi said at a press conference. “If the impression that is given by some that somebody is doing insider trading, that’s a Justice Department issue and that has no place in any of this.”

“To give a blanket attitude of ‘We can’t do this and we can’t do,’ because we can’t be trusted, I just don’t buy into that. But if members want to do that, I’m okay with that,” she continued.

The speaker’s remarks come as she has faced mounting backlash for voicing opposition to such a ban. 

“We are a free market economy,” she told reporters when asked about the matter last month. “They should be able to participate in that.”

While Pelosi herself does not trade, her husband has invested millions in stocks. Those trades have been made public under the 2012 STOCK Act, which has required Congress members and their spouses to disclose when they buy and sell stocks for the last decade.

But the law has a mixed track record. A recent investigation by Insider found that “dozens of lawmakers and 182 senior congressional staff” have violated the law.

The act also came under intense scrutiny after financial disclosures filed by lawmakers exposed that members of both parties made trades in 2020 that benefited their portfolios after receiving early briefings on the seriousness of the pandemic. 

The Justice Department reviewed some of the cases, but it ultimately did not bring any charges. 

Momentum Grows for Congressional Ban

In recent weeks, pressure to reform the STOCK Act has been growing both among the public and in Congress.

Proponents argue that Congress members should be banned from trading stocks altogether to ensure they do not have conflicts of interest or use their access to classified briefings to make money.

According to a new poll from the progressive firm Data for Progress, 67% of voters support a ban. That number rose to 74% when the respondents were given arguments both for and against the idea.

In Congress, there is widespread bipartisan support for legislation to impose stricter regulations, including among top leadership.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) has reportedly said he is considering banning members from trading if Republicans win control of the House and select him as Speaker in 2022.

“I cannot imagine being a Speaker of the House with the power of what can come before committee, you name them and what can come to the floor and trading millions of dollars worth of options,” he told NPR earlier this month. “I just don’t think the American people think that’s right.”

Members of both parties have already put forth proposals. Last week, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Mark Kelly (D-Az.) introduced legislation that would effectively ban lawmakers, as well as their spouses and dependents, from buying and selling stocks.

The same day, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) rolled out a very similar bill, though his version would not include dependents.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Hill) (Business Insider)

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