Former State Senator Frederica Wilson calls for ex-felons to have their voting rights restored in Florida in 2003. Well over a decade later, the state remains one of the harshest in America on ex-cons. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Desmond Meade's life unraveled in 1996, three years after he finished a stint in a military prison for drug use and larceny committed while serving in the US Army.
"My mom passed away, and I dove into drugs big time," the 48-year-old Miami native tells VICE. "I was addicted to powder and crack cocaine."
Over the next five years, he says, he racked up felony convictions in his home city for aggravated battery, battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, cocaine possession, and fraudulently using someone else's identification. After bouncing in and out of jail and probation in Miami-Dade County, Meade was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in 2002, earning him a three-year state prison sentence.
Today, Meade is clean and sober, hasn't been arrested since he was released early in 2004, has a law degree from Florida International University, and is helping lead a ballot petition drive that would give state voters the opportunity to decide whether an estimated 1.5 million Floridians with felony convictions should have their civil rights restored.
"America is a country of second chances," Meade says. "The only way to change things is through a citizen's initiative that lets voters decide whether an ineligible person should be allowed to vote once they have paid their debt to society."
Fifty-one years after civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and John Lewis led voting rights activists on a brutal and bloody march out of Selma, Alabama, toward the state capital of Montgomery, nearly three-dozen states deny or limit felons' right to vote. Florida joins Iowa and Kentucky as the only states in the union where a person's voting rights are banned for life unless restored by the governor or a clemency board. Civil rights advocates claim barring felons from voting disenfranchises minorities from participating in the democratic process; according to 2015 data released by the Sentencing Project, one in 13 African Americans nationwide is unable to vote due to felony convictions.
In Florida, 23 percent of the 1.5 million felons ineligible to vote are black—and roughly the same portion of all black eligibles can't actually vote because they're ex-cons.
The latest felon rights restoration effort in Florida comes just a few years after voter identification laws that critics say hurt Democratic candidates gained nationwide traction. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is on the cusp of winning his party's presidential nomination in part by fanning the flames of racial and ethnic division in America.
For some perspective, those ex-cons who can't vote might easily have decided the 2000 presidential race given George W. Bush technically only won Florida by 537 ballots. And they could well have been the difference in the 2014 Florida gubernatorial race in which incumbent Rick Scott narrowly beat Charlie Crist.
"Florida is one of the states with the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws," says Leah Aden, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Absent federal legislation or courts striking down these laws under the Voting Rights Act, ballot initiatives, state legislatures, and gubernatorial executive orders have been the only avenues for restoration of felons' rights."
Of course, groups that oppose automatic rights–restoration for felons argue people who commit crimes must show they have redeemed themselves before rejoining the democratic fray.
"You can't assume people are going to turn over a new leaf the day they walk out of prison," says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think-tank. "The unfortunate reality is that some people who walk out of prison walk back in."
In the last few years, the NAACP, along with the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have worked in various states to challenge laws barring felons from voting. For instance, civil rights groups lobbied Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and his predecessor Bob McConnell to push through executive orders that allowed the state's non-violent felons and anyone with a felony drug offense to have their voting rights restored at the end of their sentence. Those orders also effectively reduced the waiting period for violent felons from five years to three.
In 2013, Delaware Governor Jack Markell and his state legislature agreed to amend the State Constitution to allow non-violent offenders who complete their sentences to vote. Last year, approximately 60,000 ex-felons in California were granted the right to vote after the state agreed to settle litigation over laws blocking low-level offenders under community supervision from casting ballots. And just last month, the Maryland legislature overturned Governor Larry Hogan's veto of a bill that allowed felons to vote before they complete probation and parole.
In the Sunshine State, progress has been harder to come by. Meade co-founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in 2011, shortly after the state clemency board—comprised of Republicans Governor Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater—eliminated 2007 reforms passed by Crist, his predecessor. Under Crist, past offenders convicted of less serious felonies could have their rights restored without a clemency board hearing; more than 150,000 people regained their voting rights while Crist was in office.
But Scott, Bondi, Putnam, and Atwater reinstituted the lifetime voting ban for felons unless clemency is granted by the board or the governor. At the time, Scott told the News Service of Florida: "Felons seeking the restoration of rights must show they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law."
In addition, nonviolent offenders now have to wait five years after completing all terms of their sentence, including probation and parole before they can even apply to have their civil rights restored.
For his part, Meade says he applied for clemency in 2006, but it was delayed due to a backlog of more than 100,000 applications for rights restoration. Under the rules enacted by the Scott-led clemency board, Meade falls in a new category of felons who must wait at least seven years after completing their sentences because of his convictions for aggravated battery and firearm possession. Spokespeople for the four clemency board members did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email and voicemail, though in January of last year, Bondi spokeswoman Whitney Ray told the Sun Sentinel, "This issue is about felons proving they have been rehabilitated before having their civil rights restored."
So a conservative political establishment that continues to have success in off-year elections stands between hundreds of thousands of ex-cons and the voting booth.
Two years ago, the Florida Restoration Coalition teamed up with the ACLU, NAACP, and the League of Women Voters to form Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political committee handling the petition drive to have the state's citizens decide if felons should get their voting rights restored. The group needs more than 600,000 signatures to get on the ballot, but should the measure go before Florida voters, it will mark the first time since 2006 that regular people decide whether felons should be able to vote, according to the NAACP's Aden.
That year, a state coalition in Rhode Island that included local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP led a successful ballot initiative to restore the voting rights for felons on probation and parole.
While the Florida committee missed a deadline to get the felons rights question on the 2016 presidential election ballot, Meade says the group is confident the measure will go before voters in 2018, Scott's last year in office.
And that this time will be different.
"It's a pretty challenging task," Meade says. "But as we go out in the community and engage voters, there is overwhelming support for this initiative."
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