Tom Steyer, a California investor/billionaire/liberal activist, announced this week that he is running for president, and he reportedly plans to spend $100 million on his campaign. Steyer, who previously sank millions into a pro-impeachment ad campaign, has virtually no national name recognition and no obvious voter constituency, and his progressive anti-corporate platform duplicates that of a number of better-known Democrats who are already in the race. Given this, some political commentators suggested that if Steyer’s primary goal is defeating Donald Trump and defending American democracy, he might be better off putting his money into voter registration and turnout efforts than running his own almost-certain-to-fail campaign.
Possibly the most influential way to spend such money would be in Florida. A 2018 ballot initiative in the state restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people who’d completed prison terms, parole, and probation for felony convictions; a subsequent Republican-sponsored bill, though, tacked on a requirement that such individuals must also pay all outstanding court fees, fines, and restitution penalties before they can register. This is a substantial burden in a state whose criminal justice system funds itself in the first place by nickel-and-diming defendants with a wide variety of fines and fees that few can hope to ever fully pay off. Many observers have said the requirement amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.
The available information suggests that the total owed by the estimated 1 million people affected by the new law is likely well over a billion dollars. But it’s difficult to pinpoint a total figure beyond that because there’s no central state database that tracks such debts. Still, to make a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how many people Steyer might be able to help, we can look at the plaintiffs in an NAACP and League of Women Voters’ suit against the law. Of those nine individuals, one woman is technically on the hook for $59 million in restitution for her role in an insurance-fraud case, and one man owes $110,000 for an arson conviction. Excluding them as atypical, as well as the man who’s not even sure how much he owes because the records in his cases are incomplete, we find that the other six owe an average of $1,427.54. (One example: A 33-year-old who was convicted of cocaine possession in 2008, works now at a homeless services facility in Gainesville, and owes $801 in fees, including a charge that was paradoxically imposed on him for using a court-provided attorney and claiming indigent status.)
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So, instead of losing a presidential run, Tom Steyer could restore the voting rights of about 70,000 people in Florida if he wanted to.
In promising a deluge of likely ineffective spending, Steyer is not unique. Major donors in both parties commonly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to candidate treasuries and PACs that ultimately do little besides enabling political consultants to purchase second homes; Steyer himself is not even the only billionaire Dem to launch a long-shot “outsider” campaign during this cycle. Meanwhile, the opportunity to restore the rights of a million new voters in a swing state goes unaddressed.