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After success in Florida, civil rights leader says support for voting rights for felons is growing

Desmond Meade addresses a crowd at a podium as people in the background hold signs saying Let My People Vote
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After being the face and the driving voice behind Florida voters passing Amendment 4 in 2018, Desmond Meade has emerged as one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in the nation.

His activism helped end Florida’s system of barring anyone with a felony conviction from voting for life. Before Amendment 4 passed, the only way to bypass this system was to go before a panel of elected politicians and plea for your civil rights back. There were no criteria, no rules, and every governor and Florida Cabinet treated the pleas differently.

No longer.

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Amendment 4 codified specific criteria under which someone can regain the right to vote, granted they were not convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. The person only has to complete “all terms of their sentence” and they would automatically regain the right to vote.

Despite a law that was passed in the wake of Amendment 4 that specified that “all terms of a sentence” includes fines, fees and restitution, Meade has been steadfast that Amendment 4 is still transformational for the state of Florida, and indeed for the nation.

Recently, Meade was named as a MacArthur Foundation fellow for 2021 — commonly known as a “genius" grant.

WLRN spoke with Desmond Meade about that honor, his activism through the years and recent events.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

WLRN: Just a few weeks ago, you were named as one of the MacArthur Foundation Fellows for 2021, which is an extremely prestigious honor that speaks to all the work you've done on voting rights here in Florida. Where were you and what went through your mind when you got that news?

MEADE: I remember when I was first notified by the MacArthur Foundation that I was selected as one of its 2021 geniuses. I was actually driving at the time and it was it was real funny because they called previously and I thought it was [a] telemarketing call and I didn't pay too much attention to it.

But eventually I ended up answering the phone and they notified me that I was selected. I had to pull over on the side of the road. I couldn't continue driving because it was, it was very overwhelming. I remember when I was talking to them, I kind of kind of equated to winning the Super Bowl and being named the Super Bowl MVP.

To hear someone on the call say that I've been selected and knowing the selection process and how it's peer informed, it was very humbling and I was extremely honored and overwhelmed all together.

When you were on that campaign to pass Amendment 4 in Florida, was there a specific moment when you really felt like, 'yes, this is something that really does have a chance of passing?' Because there were a lot of people that thought it would never happen.

I always used to say that all of the experts said that it was impossible for this to happen. It was a controversial topic dealing with controversial people in a controversial state during a controversial political climate. It had all the ingredients for failure. But the time that I became encouraged, especially early on, was when I had conversations with real people, not with not with consultants, not with strategists or pollsters, but with real people on the ground in different communities.

Whether it was at a barbershop, a store, or a library, in a line at the grocery store or something. And and I mean, not just people who look like me, but having conversations with conservative whites, with conservative Christians or with African-American clergy, returning citizens from all sizes and shapes, political preferences and having the same conversation with basically the same results.

That's when I knew that we had a great chance of being successful.

Former felon Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Former felons in Florida began registering for elections on Tuesday, when an amendment that restores their voting rights went into effect.
Former felon Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Former felons in Florida began registering for elections on Tuesday, when an amendment that restores their voting rights went into effect.

And you recently got the news yourself that your full civil rights have been restored after the governor and the Cabinet denied your petition late last year. And that includes the right to sit on a jury, run for public office and finally being able to carry a firearm to go hog hunting with your son, as your wife told Governor DeSantis you wanted to do last year. How did it feel to get that news?

Well, the only caveat to that is that I would not have the right to bear arms yet that they did not include that, unfortunately. But everything else, as it relates to the right to run for office, serve on a jury, is included.

Thank you for clarifying that.

The interesting piece is, even though Amendment 4 restored the right to vote for me back in 2018, I still faced obstacles as a returning citizen. For instance, I still could not — even though I graduated law school, have a law degree — I still could not practice law. Even though I've been able to overcome so many other things, I still couldn't buy or even rent a home in a lot of subdivisions, all because, practicing law or or getting a home sometimes are out of the question for people like me until we get our civil rights restored.

With this latest development, with getting the right to sit on a jury and run for public office, would that impact your ability to practice law if you want to? 

Yes. Now I now I can apply to the Florida Bar and sit for the bar exam. Now I can purchase a home in any subdivision, without worrying about being barred because of my rights not being restored. And so this has addressed a lot of collateral consequences that were associated with my previous felony convictions.

After Amendment 4 passed, there was a Florida law that was passed that tied the right to vote to paying fines, fees and restitution. And then there was a protracted federal lawsuit about it, and in the end, the Florida law was upheld. But through all of that, you never wavered. You kept saying very firmly that even with that law, Amendment 4 was still transformational for the state of Florida. Can you expand on that a little bit? 

Prior to Amendment 4, anyone who was convicted of a felony offense in the state of Florida lost the right to vote — lost his civil rights — for the rest of their lives. And the only reprieve that they could have gotten at the time was through the governor.

And so basically a person would have to grovel at the knees of the governor and three other politicians in order to have their civil rights restored. And we know that that's a relic of the Jim Crow era.

But Amendment 4 changed that dramatically, and it tore down that Jim Crow wall and created another avenue that American citizens could take to be able to participate in elections without having to go and beg a politician for that right.

Even though the Florida Legislature defined “completion of sentence,” which now requires the payment of outstanding legal financial obligations before a person could benefit from Amendment 4, the fact remains that it’s still an alternative avenue, other than waiting or depending on the arbitrary decisions of a handful of politicians.

In the run up to the 2020 election, there was a moment when Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody announced an investigation into the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and money they said you received from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, in order to help pay people's fines and be able to vote. And the allegation was that you and Bloomberg were telling people to vote for a certain candidate in the presidential election in return for paying their fines.

It was very public. They announced this on TV cable news. But just a few months ago, the state came out and said that they found no crime was committed and that Bloomberg never even gave the money to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in the first place. How did that whole ordeal impact you and your organization? 

Let's classify this correctly. I think that that whole ordeal was an example of what happens when politics comes into play. We passed Amendment 4. We kept politicians and politics out of our campaign. And because of that, we were able to bring people together from all walks of life and all political persuasions to do the right thing, to rally around a basic human rights issue.

However, this Bloomberg situation, all it did was create even more confusion on the ground. It's hampered our ability to raise money to help people who are too poor to pay these fines and fees, to have that obstacle removed. So they will be forced to choose between putting food on their table or voting right. And it really slowed our ability to operate to the fullest extent of ourselves because we were busy trying to defend a falsehood.

Before that happened, everything was beautiful. Things were moving. We were helping people out. People were regaining their lives. People were able to get their driver's license back because some of these fines and fees were also attached to suspension of their licenses. And so they were able now to pursue their dreams of owning businesses and being able to get better paying jobs.

"The pleasant surprise about passing Amendment 4 was to see the domino effect that it had in multiple states throughout the country."
Desmond Meade

You consistently stress that you don't like politics. But in your line of work, the politics always seem to find a way in. 

They always find a way in. But that don't mean we can't stop pushing them back out.

Earlier this year, Florida passed a law that makes information about a voter's felony convictions public when it used to be protected. Your group came out against it, saying it could lead to voter intimidation from people who maybe don't want to see people with felony convictions voting. Is that voter intimidation possibility still a concern for you?

Yes, it is. It is a concern. And another reason why we are concerned about that is that what we've seen, even during the lawsuit surrounding Senate Bill 7066, was that — even within the state — there's a lot of confusion as to what exactly an individual owes, or if they owe anything at all. That's been one of the mainstays in conversations around the fines and fees: How can we create a system that can actually let somebody know what they owe if they owe anything?

And then when they pay it off, to give them assurance that nothing else is going to pop up. And so we're not there yet. The state is not there yet. They're still trying to figure it out. And so we're concerned that people will make accusations that a certain returning citizen who is a registered voter should not be voting, because they have outstanding fines and fees. And that person's analysis of that could be totally erroneous.

So we're very concerned that people, that laypeople, may try to get involved and try to disqualify returning citizens without having that type of background, which would falsely prevent someone from being able to participate in the the democratic process. And we want to try to minimize that from happening.

I know we're on an off year for elections, but have there been instances where this has actually come up or is it still just a potential thing that could happen at this point?

It's a potential thing that could happen. We have not received any reports of that. We maintain a 24-hour hotline for returning citizens if they encounter any kind of challenges around their ability or their right to vote that they contact us immediately. And so far, we have not been contacted by anyone that has experienced that.

I know it's the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, but have you given any thought to expanding, potentially outside of Florida? 

While the organization has not expanded outside the state of Florida, the movement has. The pleasant surprise about passing Amendment 4 was to see the domino effect that it had in multiple states throughout the country. Seeing the governor in Iowa restoring voting rights, without the requirement of paying legal financial obligations. Seeing the governor of Kentucky, restoring voting rights.

Seeing voting rights efforts being led by people just like me in California, Louisiana, North Carolina, where in all of those states, voting rights have been expanded to people, even while they were on parole or probation. Right? And so the impact of the work that we've done in Florida is spreading throughout the country and the movement is gaining momentum.

We're seeing slowly but surely, the expansion of democracy, especially to people who have been impacted by our criminal justice system.