Billionaire businessman and former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg drew the issue of voting rights into sharp focus this election season. The one-time mayor of New York City shelled out $16 million of his personal fortune to pay the court fees and fines of former felons in Florida.
That meant more than 30,000 convicted felons in the Sunshine State regained the right to vote and would get to participate in the November elections. For perspective, the fateful 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore hinged on just a few hundred votes in the State of Florida.
Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that those convicted of criminal felonies are permanently barred from voting. That’s not true. Each state decides what and how many such civil rights are stripped away and which can be restored following conviction. In Oklahoma, you can vote with a felony criminal record if your sentence is completed, you have no pending charges, and you’ve paid all restitution, court costs, fines, and fees.
Prior to 2018, Florida was just a handful of states that permanently barred felons from voting. Advocates launched a reform campaign that was widely supported by business leaders, celebrities, athletes, and others. Through a ballot measure, voters approved a process for some 1.4 million people in Florida with felony records to once again be permitted to participate in elections. Observers have called it the largest expansion of voting rights in over 50 years.
There was one major problem, however. Thousands of convicted felons still owed court fines and fees they were unable to pay, which prohibited them from voting.
So the same group of activists set out to raise $25 million to pay for these fines and fees, $16 million of which came from Bloomberg. Other donors and backers included musician John Legend, basketball star LeBron James, the cable TV networks MTV, Comedy Central, and VH1, ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, and the entire professional sports teams of the Miami Dolphins, the Orlando Magic, and the Miami Heat.
The campaigns in Florida were part of a larger effort by advocates nationwide to end so-called “voter disenfranchisement” affecting the universe of people in the United States with felony convictions who are unable to vote.
A study by The Sentencing Project estimated that over five million people in the United States would be barred from voting in the November election. That number has doubled over the past two decades, the organization says.
In Oklahoma, the numbers are particularly pointed. The Sooner State has long-held the unwelcome title of prison capital of the world. Politicians here for decades boasted about the state’s reputation for being tough on crime. Oklahoma imprisoned more people for drug possession than anything else, and imprisoned more women than any other state.
At any given time, roughly 60,000 people in Oklahoma are actively incarcerated, under community supervision (e.g. probation or parole), or are waiting to be transferred to jails from local prisons. All of these individuals are barred from voting.
“Just because you’re convicted of a felony doesn’t mean you should lose your basic rights in the democratic process,” Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, told the local media in 2018. “Our position is that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being a full citizen.”
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