Branding them "unnecessary and unjust," Attorney General Eric Holder is urging the repeal of state laws that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from voting, a move that would restore the right to vote to nearly six million people. Holder’s call is largely symbolic since the federal government cannot force states to change their voting laws. But civil rights groups and advocates are praising Holder for advancing a critical step in reforming the criminal justice system. We are joined by Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Meade is one of more than 1.3 million citizens in Florida who have lost their right to vote due to prior felony convictions. After overcoming homelessness and addiction, Meade is now finishing up a law degree — but like the right to vote, Florida statutes also stand to prohibit him from taking the bar and being able to practice law.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called on states to repeal laws that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from voting, a move that would restore the right to vote to nearly six million people. African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the laws. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five [African Americans] have lost the right to vote. During his speech at the Georgetown University Law Center, Holder called the laws, quote, "unnecessary and unjust."
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and to diminish the electoral strength of newly freed populations. The resulting system of unequal enforcement and discriminatory application of the law led to a situation in 1890 where 90 percent—90 percent—of the Southern prison population was black. And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives. They could not vote.
In the years since, thanks to the hard work and the many sacrifices of millions throughout our history, we’ve outlawed legal discrimination. We’ve ended "separate but equal" and confronted the evils of slavery and segregation. And particularly during the last half-century, we’ve brought about really historic advances in the cause of civil rights. And we secured critical protections like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yet despite this remarkable, once almost unimaginable progress, the vestiges and the direct effects of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books. And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore, it is also to unjust to tolerate.
Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans, 5.8 million of our fellow citizens, are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. Now, that’s more than the individual populations of 31 united states, 31 of our states. And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable. Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of these laws. In three states—Florida, Kentucky and Virginia—the ratio climbs to one in five.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Attorney General Eric Holder speaking on Tuesday, calling on states to repeal laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting. His call was largely symbolic since the federal government does not have the authority to force states to change their voting laws. But Holder’s call was praised by civil rights groups and advocates for reforming the criminal justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He’s one of over 1.3 million citizens in Florida who have lost their right to vote due to prior felony convictions. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five African Americans have lost their right to vote. Desmond joins us from Tallahassee.
Desmond Meade, thanks so much for being with us. Why don’t you start by just telling us your story, how you lost the right to vote, and now what you’re doing about it?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, Amy, thank you for having me on today.
Back in 2005, I found myself standing in front of railroad tracks in South Florida. At the time, I was homeless, unemployed, recently released from prison, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and I see no hope. I didn’t have a future—or so I thought. And I was waiting on the train to come so I can jump in front of it and end my life.
Fortunately, a train did not come, and I crossed those tracks. And I checked myself into a rehabilitation program, treatment program, and after graduating from there, I went to a homeless shelter. And while living at that homeless shelter, I enrolled at one of the local colleges there, Miami Dade College. And I enrolled into the paralegal program. And after successfully completing that program, I continued on, and I received my bachelor’s. And today, I am now three months away from graduating from law school at Florida International University College of Law.
AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations. Will you be able to practice law in Florida?
DESMOND MEADE: That’s a real great question, Amy, because typically when I tell my story, there is a round of applause afterwards. But unfortunately, my story does not have a happy ending, because in spite of the many obstacles that I’ve been able to overcome in life, even making the dean’s list last year, I still would not be able to even sit for the bar once I graduate in May.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Desmond Meade, could you explain what exactly it means to be disenfranchised in Florida? What are all of the different things that you’re prohibited from doing?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, in Florida, when a person is disenfranchised, they’re basically stripped of their citizenship—for life. So, in the—say, for instance, in my case, you know, I am unable to buy a home for my wife and kids anywhere I choose to buy a home. I am restricted in employment opportunities. Of course, I cannot vote. I cannot serve on a jury, which was recently highlighted in the Zimmerman trial, you know, and I’m basically ostracized and forced to wear a scarlet letter of shame for the rest of my life.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Desmond Meade, why are the laws so restrictive in Florida? And what are—what is the process for formerly incarcerated people to reclaim their rights? I mean, is it at all possible? And what does it entail?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, the laws are still restrictive in Florida because our current administration refuses to let go of these Jim Crow laws. There have been positions stated concerning whether or not it’s a political ploy. You know, I think it’s more than just that. You know, I would challenge people to really start investigating what type of connections private prisons have to the people who are making a lot of our criminal justice policies.
So, presently in the state of Florida, an individual would have to wait five or seven years before they’re able to even apply to have their civil rights restored. But even after applying, you know, the processing time for the application takes upwards of six years. So, in reality, an individual will have to wait anywhere between 11 to 13 years just to see if they have a chance, a shot, at getting their rights restored, because in that time frame, just having a traffic ticket is enough to disqualify them.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Desmond Meade, does that apply to all felons or just to violent felons?
DESMOND MEADE: You would think that a policy so restrictive would only apply to violent felons, but in the state of Florida, it applies to everyone, even that individual that may have released hot-air balloons in the air or an individual who may have gotten caught driving with a suspended license or catching a lobster whose tail is too short, or even disturbing nesting eggs, turtle nesting eggs, or burning a tire in public. You know, everyone falls under these policies, and everyone is stripped of that one endearing quality of being an American, and that’s the right to vote, the right to have your voice heard.
AMY GOODMAN: This is extremely significant. I mean, in places like Vermont and Maine, state prisoners can vote from jail. You can never vote for the rest of your life, even out of jail. So what is the significance of Eric Holder’s speech urging states to repeal laws that prohibit felons from voting? Can you talk about what this will mean?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, I think one of the main significance of the attorney general’s speech was really to heighten awareness of the policies that are currently in place that serve no legitimate purpose whatsoever. And I would even go as far as to say that those individuals that are advocating for these type of disenfranchisement policies are acting in an irresponsible manner and contrary to public safety and to the goodwill of the people.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Desmond Meade, why are African Americans so disproportionately impacted? What is the connection, if any, to the war on drugs?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, I think Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow, really laid it out so everyone—it could be clear to everyone about how there is a disproportionate amount of police activity in the African-American community. And as a result of this activity, you find that a great amount of African Americans are being arrested and incarcerated, which gives a skewed vision of drug use in the United States. So while African Americans might really represent a small minority of drug users, they represent the majority of individuals who are incarcerated due to drug use.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Rand Paul also gave a speech yesterday that he’s calling the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, that would apply to federal elections, voting in federal elections, he said during a speech at the law center. Can you talk about the significance of this?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, I think that it would really—having federal legislation that would allow returning citizens to participate in federal elections would pressure some states to change their policies, particularly in Florida, because one of the main reasons is that there will be some kind of a hardship there, because how would they administer elections by allowing a returning citizen to only vote for federal candidates and then restricting them from voting for state candidates? So, I think that that would force them to really revamp their system.
But I’m not relying, and we’re not relying, on this current administration. They appear to have dug in their heels and have refused to even engage in dialogue with our lawmakers or even with our clergy in the state of Florida. So it’s very evident to us that they have no intentions of walking away or moving away from this Jim Crow-type policy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Desmond Meade, you’ve stressed repeatedly that it’s important that people recognize that this is a bipartisan issue. Could you explain why you think that’s important?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, you know, I think that there is a select few that would profit from these policies being in place in Florida, because it contributes to the recidivism rate. And one of the tactics that they would probably use is saying that, you know—and we’ve heard the attorney general even mention that research has showed that the majority of people who are impacted by these policies tend to vote for the Democratic Party. However, what I can tell you in Florida is that there are Republicans who are disfranchised. And when the policy changes were made in Florida which allowed nonviolent offenders to have their rights restored automatically, it was a Republican—well, it was Governor Charlie Crist, who was a Republican at the time. Virginia, their governor and attorney general were Republican, when they recently made the changes. And we know what’s going on in Kentucky. So, this issue transcends political lines. It’s about humanity. It’s about—it’s an all-American issue. It’s not about Democrat or Republican. It’s about the common decency of letting an individual or helping an individual to reintegrate back into their community so they can become productive citizens and enjoy life.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, if you can’t vote, then how are you represented? It goes to the issue of politicians deciding where funds go, deciding policy. When a whole group, when a community does not voting, they’re not represented, Desmond Meade.
DESMOND MEADE: Amy, you are 100 percent correct. As a result of these policies, not only have the African-American and Latino communities’ voice, their political voice, have been weakened on a daily basis, but as you’ve seen in the Zimmerman trial, you know, that it also affects the ability of African Americans and Latinos to be properly represented in a court of law.
AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, we want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, ex-offender who was previously homeless, still disenfranchised, but finishing up law school in the next few months. Whether he can practice law in Florida, well, that depends on laws changing. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.