Florida resident Desmond Meade says politicians have had enough time to change the state’s restrictive felon disenfranchisement law, which imposes a lifetime voting ban on people with all felony convictions. “Now is the time for people to get it right,” Meade told VICE Impact. And Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), has been focused on doing just that – he has led the fight against felony disenfranchisement through grassroots and volunteer efforts throughout the state of Florida. Today the FRRC is continuing its effort to collect petition signatures by December 31 in order to have a ballot initiative to restore voting rights for people with certain prior criminal convictions, appear on the November 2018 ballot that all Florida voters can weigh in on. The group has collected some hundreds of thousands of petitions so far.
According to a report last year by nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, 1.5 million people in Florida alone are disenfranchised due to prior felony convictions. This accounts for nearly half of the national post-sentence disenfranchised population, the report read. Meade, who has led and helped organize FRRC town halls, various campaigns, days of action, and engaged with people one-on-one throughout the state to bring awareness to felony disenfranchisement, is personally impacted by Florida’s lifetime voting ban on people with criminal convictions.
“I dedicated my life to community service, giving back, and going to school.”
Meade, who is also currently the chairperson for political committee, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, is a recovered drug addict who has served time, and has turned his life around since he was released from prison in 2004. Shortly after his release, while he was still battling drug addiction and homelessness, Meade once considered taking his own life. But he checked himself into a drug rehabilitation program, and moved into a homeless shelter. It was through his rehabilitation treatment he realized his life had a new purpose: giving back.
“In the process of going through treatment I discovered what I found to be my purpose, there was something I had to offer,” he said. “I dedicated my life to community service, giving back, and going to school.”
Meade enrolled in a paralegal program at Miami Dade College, and continued on to receive his bachelor’s degree. As he worked in the community to bring awareness to disenfranchisement issues, he earned a law degree from Florida International University (FIU) in 2014. Despite Meade’s accomplishments since leaving prison more than a decade ago, he is a part of the significant Florida population who is disenfranchised. Not to mention he is unable to take the bar exam until his rights are restored.
But like Meade, other Floridians with prior convictions are met with significant obstacles to have their voting rights restored after serving time. Since Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) took office in 2011, he reversed efforts by his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, to restore voting rights to former felons with nonviolent felony convictions. Now under Gov. Scott, the clemency process is notoriously difficult. After a person has completed their sentence, probation, parole, and restitution, there is a mandatory five to seven year wait period, depending on the conviction, before they can apply for clemency.
But as The Florida Times Union reports, the average wait time to be granted a clemency hearing is nine years – and the numbers for clemencies are startling. A report by the Orlando Sentinel in March found that under Gov. Scott, who sits on the executive clemency board, only roughly 2,400 clemencies had been issued since 2011. For comparison,155,000 ex-felons had their voting rights restored within Gov. Crist’s four-year term.
Floridians with prior convictions are met with significant obstacles to have their voting rights restored after serving time.
That’s where FRRC, and the Say Yes to Second Chances campaign comes in. The focus behind FRRC is to effect change from a grassroots community level – and not rely on elected officials, Meade explained. “We realized that this has to be taken out of the hands of politicians,” he told VICE Impact.
FRRC has partnerships focused on voter restoration efforts with national organizations like, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the League of Women Voters, to name a few. Volunteers have traveled throughout the state to connect with Floridians from all walks of life to spread awareness of Florida’s felony disenfranchisement, and to collect enough petition signatures to put the voting restoration amendment on the November 2018 ballot.
More than 700,000 signatures are required for the ballot initiative to appear on the ballot, and the initiative would need 60 percent of support from voters to pass. In a Facebook post to FRRC supporters, Meade relayed that the group had already collected 750,000 signatures, and is working on collecting 250,000 more by the end of the year.
More than 700,000 signatures are required for the ballot initiative to appear on the ballot.
While disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect black people, Meade told VICE Impact that it’s important for people, and voters to realize that disenfranchisement affects people of all races, religions, and political affiliations. “This is an all-American issue, it’s not exclusively an African-American issue,” he said. He added, “This is a people’s movement.”
Efforts to put Florida's constitutional amendment on the ballot is a community effort. You can help restore voting rights in Florida.