TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An effort to pay court-ordered costs for felons who have served their time behind bars is getting a $250,000 boost from MTV, VH1 and Comedy Central, the cable networks announced on Friday.
The money will go to a “Fees and Fines” fund created by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in response to a controversial state law requiring felons to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations” to be eligible to vote.
The donation by ViacomCBS, the parent company of the networks, came a week after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2019 state law, which was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.”
Voting-rights groups that challenged the law alleged that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
The Atlanta-based appeals court on Sept. 11 overturned a district judge’s ruling that said the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” court-ordered debts.
Friday’s announcement by the networks coincided with the first “National Black Voter Day,” ViacomCBS said in a news release.
About a third of the state’s 1.4 million convicted felons who are unable to vote are Black, the release said.
The $250,000 contribution is “a continuation of the brands' commitment to increasing voter access and advancing racial justice,” the company said. “With fees ranging from $200 to $2,000, this donation could mean that more than 1,250 returning citizens could have their fines or fees paid and become eligible to vote in the upcoming election.”
Felons face an Oct. 5 deadline to register to vote in the November presidential election.
Lawyers and other advocates have lined up to help but are encountering problems such as incomplete, inaccurate or contradictory records when they try to ascertain how much felons owe and how much they’ve paid.
“The fees and fines that returning citizens are being forced to pay to cast a ballot are a modern-day poll tax that is being used to keep marginalized people from voting -- and it disproportionately affects Black voters,” Brianna Cayo Cotter, senior vice president of social impact for ViacomCBS, said in a prepared statement.
The effort to wipe out felons' fines and fees has attracted other high-profile aid, including contributions by NBA star LeBron James, former NBA star Michael Jordan and Florida professional sports teams.