Into Restoring Voting Rights for Former Felons
Trymaine Lee: Just a heads-up. This episode contains a reference to suicide.
Desmond Meade: Man, let me tell you, drug addiction will take you some places you don't want to go. That was my addiction to drugs. I've been in and out of jails and eventually prison.
Lee: Desmond Meade is 53 years old. For more than a decade, he cycled in and out of the criminal justice system, mostly on felony drug charges. In 2004, he was released. But the cycle started all over again.
Meade: I was homeless. I was hooked on crack cocaine. I was unemployed, recently released from prison. And the only thing I owned were the clothes on my back. I was ready to check out, man. I didn't have any self-esteem. I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel. And, you know, it was sad because I knew that my parents didn't raise me to be in that position. But there I was.
Lee: One day in August 2005, Desmond walked up to a set of railroad tracks.
Meade: But God had other plans. And I ended up crossin' those tracks. And I walked about a couple blocks further and checked myself into drug treatment. And they put me in a four-month inpatient, in-house treatment program. And I successfully completed that. And after doing that, I moved into a homeless shelter.
Lee: That's when Desmond turned his life around, stopped using drugs, went to school, and eventually graduated from law school. But there was something that no tomorrow how hard he worked he still couldn't do. It's something that's basic to our democracy. He couldn't vote.
Meade: Nothing speaks more to citizenship than being able to vote.
Lee: The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank, estimates that more than 6 million American citizens nationwide could not vote in the 2016 presidential election because they had been convicted of a felony. The laws vary state by state. Many states automatically restore voting rights to felons after they leave jail or prison.
Others wait until the end of probation or parole. And there are still 11 states where a felony conviction can mean losing their right to vote forever. Florida, where Desmond lives, is one of them. And as we'll explain, in many cases it's not because of their crimes. It's because they are poor.
While most Floridians with a felony conviction are white, Black people are disenfranchised at a much higher rate than white people. Desmond Meade has been leading a movement to help re-enfranchise people returning from prison, but it's been a whiplash journey. There have been thrilling victories.
Archival Recording: One of the ballot initiatives in Florida that has raised a lot of national attention, including statewide effort, has been Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to felons. It looks like Amendment 4 will pass. That's a big deal not just...
Lee: And devastating losses.
Archival Recording: Federal appeals court ruled Friday the state can keep former felons from voting if they owe court fines and fees. On Your Side's...
Lee: With 41 days until national elections, the fight to restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of Floridians is not over. But time is running out. (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, the fight over who gets to vote in Florida, a critical swing state where elections are often decided by a very narrow margin and every single vote counts.
Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit that's been organizing in this space for more than 15 years. But this effort to disenfranchise people convicted of crimes started during the Jim Crow era, 150 years ago.
Meade: The original intent was to address newly freed slaves' ability to vote, to be a part of democracy. Overnight, you've seen the very same people that was demonized, the very same people that was beaten and not even considered a whole human being all of a sudden had the same rights as their slave owners. And then those people exercised those rights and started becoming mayors, and sheriffs, and congressmen and got some folks nervous.
And so they had to engage in these practices that I would say neutralized the threat. And as a result of that, you've seen state-sanctioned violence where we're killing, murdering people to prevent them from voting, hangin' them in trees, burning them, lettin' them get bit by dogs, sprayin' them with fire hoses. And then you throw up obstacles such as literacy tests, and poll taxes. But one of the best ones that they used was felony disenfranchisement because they were able to criminalize things that the newly freed slaves were more likely to do.
Lee: Like be Black. Like be Black--
Meade: Black. (LAUGH) Be Black. Be unemployed, you get criminalized. Loitering and all that. Spittin' on the sidewalk.
Lee: So when you get out of prison that last time and you have a lot on your shoulders, right, you're tryin' to stay clean, housing. You're going through all this. And it's almost like you never finished serving your time. So you get out, but you don't have your rights restored, right? You have this thing trailing you. Why did voting matter so much? With everything else on your plate, why was voting so central?
Meade: Because nothing speaks more to citizenship than being able to vote. That's number one. Number two is: As long as I can't vote, politicians ain't gonna care about what is important to me. There's no self-interest in the politician to do something to fix this criminal justice system. As long as they're getting their campaign contributions from private prisons and people that profit off the misery of families, "People with felony convictions vote," you know, or they don't vote, "so we can treat them any old kinda way."
Lee: Around five years ago, Desmond and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition began to push for a ballot initiative in Florida to restore voting rights to most people with felony records. At the time, Florida was one of a handful of states where people like Desmond had to individually apply for clemency from the governor to be able to vote. The initiative was called Amendment 4, and it finally made the Florida ballot in November 2018.
Meade: Amendment 4 was designed to create an alternative pathway for American citizens to vote. Prior to Amendment 4, any American citizen get convicted of a felony offense lost the right to vote for life. Don't matter if it was a driver with a suspended license, burning a tire in public, trespassing on the pier of a construction site, or releasing helium-filled balloons in the air. It didn't matter. If you were convicted of a felony offense, you lost the right to vote for life. Amendment 4 created a pathway that allowed people that when they're complete with their sentence, that they could have the opportunity to vote.
Lee: Did Amendment 4 also include, you know, murderers, rapists?
Meade: No, it did not because the public was not ready for it. You know, when we thoroughly examined and did our polling and focus groups, folks had natural pushback to people committed murder, people who committed felony sexual offenses. And, you know, in Florida you need 60% of the voters to vote yes. And, you know, an overwhelming number of those people said, "You know, we can wrap our heads around everything else, but those two, we would want for them to go through a process with the governor."
Lee: Amendment 4 would umbrella how many people?
Meade: 1.4 million.
Lee: That's a lot of people. (LAUGH)
Meade: That's a whole lot of people.
Lee: Talk to us about what you actually had to go through, like the work to get that done, to get it on the ballot.
Meade: The work was just talking to everyday, regular people. That's what the work was. Really, the work was keeping politics out of it, the politicians out of it. You know, when you get key politicians out of something, man, it's beautiful. You know, you see it with COVID-19, the response to COVID-19.
The ugliness of COVID-19 is the political response to COVID-19. The beauty of COVID-19 is the community response to looking out for their neighbors and their loved ones and coming together and rallying around people to help save lives. And so our work, the hardest thing that anybody can do is just keep politics the hell away.
Lee: How'd you win 'em over? I mean, to some people it's obvious, right, 'cause your family's impacted and, you know, you just understand or your been through the system yourself. But, like, how did you sell to the folks who have no connection to the criminal justice system or anyone who's been through the system?
Meade: Well, you know, they do have a connection. United States, I mean, incarcerates so many of its own citizens, man, that somebody knows somebody who's been locked up. But guess what? It goes beyond incarceration. This thing is deeper than that, bro. At the end of the day, who among us right now is perfect?
And so what we talk about and what was so simple is: "Do you know anyone that you love that has ever made a mistake?" It's just that simple. And that question could be asked to anyone and anyone you ask is gonna know somebody, even themselves, that has made a mistake, right? And everyone, or I would say the overwhelming majority of folks deep down inside, we always want to be forgiven.
Lee: Amendment 4 needed 60% of the vote to pass. It got 65%.
Archival Recording: One thing that did happen here tonight in Florida that is important: Amendment 4, which is the amendment that will restore voting rights to 1.5 million people who already paid their debt to society and had felony records, that passed. So that amendment is gonna be hugely important for voting rights in Florida.
Meade: At the end of the day, we brought people in from all walks of life to be able to surround around this concept about forgiveness, redemption, restoration. And we talked to people one by one. We didn't limit who we could talk to or who could talk to us, right? We made this as expansive as we possibly could.
And at the end of the day on that night in November, we had a million more people vote for us than any candidate at the top of the ticket. And all of those votes that we looked at, we didn't see any that was based on hate. We didn't see any that was based on fear. What we saw were votes that was based on love. And for that night, that moment, the world, the state, country actually got to see love winnin' the day.
Lee: But the victory was short lived. After the break, how the Republican-led Florida legislature struck a massive blow to Amendment 4 and started a long court battle. Stick with us.
Lee: (MUSIC) We're back with Desmond Meade. When we left off, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had scored a huge victory for people with felony convictions. Passing Amendment 4 meant more than 1.4 million of them would be eligible to vote. That's a big deal in a state that may very well decide the presidential election this year.
Meade: I mean, at the end of the day, you're talkin' about a state where we've seen the presidential election decided by less than 600 votes and a average of 100,000 every year after that.
Lee: But the legislature (led by Republicans) and the governor (also a Republican) had other ideas. In Florida, court fees, fines, restitution to victims, all of that is part of sentencing. After Amendment 4 passed, the governor signed a bill that said even if somebody has done their time, if they can't pay what they owe, they can't register to vote. That triggered lawsuits and charges that the restrictions were an illegal poll tax. But earlier this month, a federal appeals court said it's okay to require the payment of all fees and fines.
Meade: I mean, that was a blow to democracy. That was a blow to 774,000 returning citizens in Florida that had some type of legal financial obligation.
Lee: A recent study from the University of Florida estimates that nearly three quarters of a million people who would have reclaimed their right to vote owed some kind of debt. Why is it so hard for people to pay their fines?
Meade: I mean, so one of the reasons is a lot of people are too poor to pay the fines, right? You know, no state should force a person to choose between puttin' food on their kid's plate or voting, that voting should be unencumbered and free. The other thing is that the state does not have a centralized database system that a person can just come and just find everything out, especially if a individual may have fines or convictions in multiple counties.
Lee: The deadline to register to vote in Florida is October 5th. Desmond's organization is rushing to raise money to pay off outstanding court debts for as many as 775,000 people. They've raised more than $20 million so far.
Meade: You know, I voted for the first time in over 30 years just a few weeks ago. And when I walked in, I was walking up to the precinct and I was thinking about my ancestors that had put their lives on the line and shed blood so I could have the right to vote.
And I was thinking about those 700-plus thousand returning citizens who have financial obligations and won't be able to experience what I was gettin' ready to experience. I was bringing the spirit of those individuals with me in that voting location. When I walked into the voting booth by myself, I experienced a paradigm shift, a transformation, or a revelation.
And I was like, "Wow." I was on sacred ground in that voting booth. And I was engaged in a sacred act. And I really fully understood that me circling whatever I needed to circle and choosing my candidate, me voting was something that was so sacred it was elevated above partisan politics and all this other stuff. Because what voting was actually doing, the sacredness of that voting was an act that said, "I am."
Lee: You put a lot of work in. And I do wonder. Are you feelin' hopeful? Are you feelin' the way things are turnin'--
Meade: Always hopeful.
Lee: --that you're feelin' good?
Meade: Always hopeful. Every day, somebody's gettin' their rights restored. Every day, somebody's registering to vote. Every day, somebody is getting access to democracy. How could I not be hopeful? I'm okay with knowing that we may have to fight a little bit more.
But what's keeping me holding on is the fact that Amendment 4 is still intact and that there is a pathway. We just have to remove some of these obstacles that have remained there because of the court's decision. But I'm confident that we'll be able to do so.
Lee: Desmond Meade, brother, thank you for joining us. I really do appreciate it. Thank you.
Meade: All right, my brother. Have a good one.
Lee: Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. And I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.