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MTV, Comedy Central And VH1 Join Last Minute Push To Register Florida's Returning Citizens

Dolce Bastien (right) registers to vote after getting his rights restored in Miami.
Daniel Rivero, WLRN
Dolce Bastien (right) registers to vote after getting his rights restored in Miami.

"We have estimated that at least 1,250 people will be able to vote this year because of the contribution that we’re making."

Thirty years after MTV launched its Rock The Vote campaign, the brand is helping in an eleventh-hour push to help Floridians with felony convictions register to vote in time for the November election.

In a joint contribution, MTV, Comedy Central and VH1 will be making a $250,000 donation to pay off fines, fees and restitution Floridians whose only obstacle to voting is clearing financial hurdles.

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“This announcement is a continuation of our legacy in both increasing voter access for young people, and also our continuing commitment to racial justice,” Erika Soto Lamb, the vice president of social impact for parent company ViacomCBS, told WLRN in an interview.

The approval of Amendment 4 in 2018 ended Florida’s lifelong voting ban for felony convictions, but since then the question of eligibility has been tied up in the courts, after the controversial SB 7066 law required payment of fines, fees and restitution before voting.

Last week a federal appeals court upheld the state law, making it so that money has to be paid before voting.

“The fines can range anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000. We have estimated that at least 1,250 people will be able to vote this year because of the contribution that we’re making,” said Soto Lamb.

The donation will be made to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which has raised millions of dollars in an effort to pay existing costs related to felony cases. So far, the fundraising effort has led to about 4,000 Floridians regaining their right to vote.

Last month, the effort received a $100,000 donation from a nonprofit group run by Los Angeles Lakers star, and former member of the Miami Heat, Lebron James. Michael Jordan and the Jordan Brand also donated $500,000 to the effort.

Despite the success of the fundraising, more than 7,000 people that have contacted the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition are still waiting for help in paying off what they owe.

The MTV, Comedy Central and VH1 contributions will have a real impact in helping people on that wait list, said Angel Sanchez, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

“We need the money. That’s the bottom line,” said Sanchez. “We’re absolutely excited whenever major players join in these efforts. It actually inspires many other folks to also want to join in.”

Sanchez said he wishes it didn’t come to this. The group urged the Florida legislature not to require payment of fines, fees and restitution before voting.

“The vote is being held hostage with poor folks, to see if you can get friends and family to pay this off,” said Sanchez. “And what we’re saying is that look: People’s vote matters so much that we’re gonna get friends, we’re gonna get family, we’re gonna get celebrities — we’re gonna get everyone we can to pay them off."

Sanchez said there has been a recent surge in people contacting the group seeking help.

“The uptick has been commensurate with the shrinking window we have to register folks,” he said.

The deadline to register to vote in Florida is Oct. 5.

“This is the final push,” said Soto Lamb of MTV, Comedy Central and VH1. “This is also a challenge to other companies. For us, this is an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and both increase voter access, and fix the injustices that are long overdue for fixing.”

Another last minute push to help returning citizens regain the right to vote is coming from Democratic State Sen. Jason Pizzo.

Miami-Dade Countyset up a process for helping people with felony convictions get their rights restored, even if they still owe money connected to their felony cases. A provision in SB 7066 allows for courts to go back and modify someone’s sentence in respect to the money the owe. Judges can effectively declare that the person has the right to vote, even if they still owe money.

The 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, along with the Miami-Dade State Attorney, Public Defender, and the Clerk of Courts all jointly created the process, with help from Pizzo.

But the main problem with this process is the question of volume: There is none.

“Less than 100 people have had their cases modified in the largest county in Florida, and the third largest state in the country,” said Pizzo.

Dozens of attorneys with law firm DLA Piper have volunteered to help people navigate through the process. But at this point, there’s more attorneys on standby than people calling to get help, said Pizzo.

Pizzo is urging members of the public to contact him directly to get help modifying their cases. The process only works in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county.

“If you're a returning citizen with a case. Just call me. We'll figure it out,” said Pizzo.

He urged the public to call or send an email to his office, or contact him on any social media platform.

“We check every single message,” he said. “I want everybody to reach out, honestly. I don't care what it is. Just give me a try. Give me a chance to see if I can help you.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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