Fighting for Democracy in Florida
What kind of a democracy works so hard to keep its citizens from voting? The US Democracy. More than 6 million Americans are unable to vote because they were once convicted of a felony. This includes those who have been committed of non-violent crimes as well. Nowhere is this problem worse than in Florida. It has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country, and the African American community has been hit the hardest.
Desmond Meade, an attorney and the director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, knows all this all too well. As a young man, Meade was convicted of some drug charges and spent time in prison for possession of a firearm. But even though he served his time and turned his life around, his full civil rights haven’t been restored—and may never be. In the middle of a huge grassroots effort to get a measure to restore felons’ voting rights on the 2018 ballot, Desmond took some time to talk to us about his life and his hopes for building a better democracy in the Sunshine State.
Could you tell a bit of your story? You went through some hard times after you left prison.
In 2005 I was homeless and addicted to drugs and I found myself standing in front of the railroad tracks waiting on a train to come so that I could jump in front of it. That was the lowest point in my life. I didn't want to live anymore, but the train didn't come. I ended up crossing the tracks and I walked a couple blocks further and was able to check myself into a drug treatment facility for four months.
I started to question what I had done with my life. I asked myself a lot of questions, and I decided that I had to make some type of contribution to society. From the time I walked out of that drug treatment center, my whole life had been committed to improving the lives of people around me.
And then you went back to school, right?
I was living in a homeless shelter and I decided to enroll at Miami Dade College. I was in the paralegal program and lo and behold I did exceptionally well. I ended up graduating at the top of the class. I was encouraged to continue my education, which I did. Then I pursued a bachelor's in public safety management, with a concentration in criminal justice, at Miami Dade again. I was able to graduate with highest honors and was encouraged to apply to law school. I went to Florida International University College of Law and I graduated in 2014.
And now you're working on restoring voting rights for felons in Florida. Can you tell us why that’s important to you?
According to the latest research, about 1.7 million people in Florida cannot vote because of Florida's felon disenfranchisement policy, and I’m one of them. That's a very significant amount of people who fell out of the democratic process. And Florida is one of only three states that permanently disenfranchises American citizens. Once a person has served their time, they should have their rights restored, because they've already paid their debt to society.
What else can't you do if you have a felony conviction in Florida? In what other ways are you and others affected?
The first thing is I can't vote. The second thing is I can't even practice in my profession because I can't apply to the Florida Bar until my rights have been restored. The third thing is that I am unable to buy a home or even rent a home in certain subdivisions because the HOAs [homeowner associations] have provisions that would restrict me from owning or renting a house.
What’s the impact of these policies on the African American community?
A greater percentage of African Americans are disenfranchised than any other community. However, when you look at the sheer numbers, African Americans only account for one-third of the total amount of people who are disenfranchised. So it impacts all Americans. White, black, Latino, it impacts us all.
Where did this law come from? Why was it passed?
The original intent of these policies was to prevent newly freed slaves from participating in democracy. Felon disenfranchisement in Florida was part of the Jim Crow mechanism meant to diminish the impact of civically participating African Americans. One of the most effective ways to do that was to arrest people for crazy charges and strip their right to vote away from them, as a result of that conviction.
What kinds of charges? What are some of the strangest things that could keep you from ever voting again?
Driving on a suspended license, disturbing turtle eggs at the beach, trespassing on the pier of public property, burning a tire in public, catching a lobster whose tail is too short. You know how you go and get those “happy birthday” or “congratulations” balloons? You've gotten them before, right?
Have you ever inadvertently or intentionally released them in the air?
In Florida, that's a third-degree felony. So, if convicted, you would lose your rights for life in the state of Florida for releasing helium-filled balloons in the air.
What would you say to someone who says, these crazy laws aside, "Aren't felons bad guys? Why should we spend time worrying about their rights?”
The bottom line is, if somebody makes a mistake and does something wrong, and they repay their debt, they serve their time, the American thing to do is to restore their rights. America was founded on second chances. A person pays their debt, you let them move on with their lives.
What makes you stay in Florida when you could've gone elsewhere?
That's a great question. You want me to tell you the main thing that made me stay? Because me leaving Florida reminded me of the days of slavery, when all a slave had to do was cross an imaginary state boundary to get their freedom.
We're in 2017. There's no way that an American citizen should have to run away to another state in order to experience the American dream, in order to be considered a citizen. So there's no way I'm leaving.
Talk to me about your current project, Say Yes to Second Chances.
It’s a huge grassroots effort to get an amendment on the ballot that will restore voting rights to those who’ve paid their debt to society. We were able, driven only by volunteers, to collect enough signatures to trigger the Florida Supreme Court to review our language to ensure that it's constitutional. We’re hoping that we’ll get this measure on the ballot for 2018 and let the voters decide.
What difference will it make if the measure becomes law?
Well, let me tell you. I really believe that a more inclusive democracy is a more vibrant democracy. I don't necessarily focus too much on how an individual votes. My concern is whether or not they had the opportunity to vote. I think that the more people participate in the electoral process, the more vibrant our democracy will be. The more accountable our elected officials will be, as well.
Are you getting a sense that people in Florida are ready for change?
Oh yeah, when you talk to everyday people on the ground, what you find—whether they're conservative, whether they're progressive, whether they're white, black, young, or old—is that people think the current system is not fair.
The more people are educated on the issue, the more and more people you’ll find who will stand up and demand change. We're very hopeful, very hopeful.
If you’re a Florida resident, take action to support Say Yes to Second Chances today!