Desmond Meade Hopes to Win Voting Rights for 1.4M Floridians with Felony Convictions—Including Himself

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Voters in Florida are preparing to vote on a measure that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences. One in five African Americans in Florida and 10 percent of the state’s adult population are ineligible to vote because of a criminal record. Across the United States, more than 6.1 million people with felony convictions are not eligible to vote. Florida is one of just four states that bar ex-felons from voting for life. The other states are Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that Florida disenfranchises more citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee combined. We speak with Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who is leading the fight to re-enfranchise felons in Florida. He’s also chair of the group Floridians for a Fair Democracy. Meade is an ex-offender who was previously homeless. He is still disenfranchised. We also speak with Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.” His latest piece is titled “Inside the Unlikely Movement That Could Restore Voting Rights to 1.4 Million Floridians.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as the midterm elections approach, we’re continuing our discussion on voting rights for the hour. Voters in Florida are preparing to vote on a measure that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million people—that’s right, 1.4 million people—with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences. One in five African Americans in Florida and 10 percent of the state’s adult population is ineligible to vote because of a criminal record. Across the United States, more than 6.1 million people with felony convictions are not eligible to vote. Florida is one of just four states that bar ex-felons from voting for life. The other states are Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that Florida disenfranchises more citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee combined.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who’s leading the fight to re-enfranchise felons in Florida. He’s also chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He himself is an ex-offender who was previously homeless. He’s still disenfranchised.

We’re also joined by Ari Berman, a senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His latest piece for Mother Jones, “Inside the Unlikely Movement That Could Restore Voting Rights to 1.4 Million Floridians.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Desmond, let’s begin with you. Talk about what’s on the ballot in November in Florida and what this means.

DESMOND MEADE: Good morning, Amy, and thank you for having me on the show. When you ask what’s on the ballot, you know, I think that what’s on the ballot is solutions. You know, you’ve just previously talked about the problems, but I think Amendment 4 is all about solutions and about a different way of really moving issues in this country, when you’re seeing people from all walks of life, from all political persuasions, from all races, that have actually come together and create a very impressive grassroots movement that’s poised to make history on November 6th. That’s what’s right about this movement. That’s what’s right about this country. So we’re very excited about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, could you talk about what the situation is now for an ex-felon, how difficult it is to regain your voting rights, and what this law, if it’s passed on a referendum in Amendment 4, would do?

DESMOND MEADE: Yes, of course. In the state of Florida—and it’s probably the worst in the entire country—a person has to wait either five or seven years before they’re just allowed to apply. And once they apply, what we’ve seen are people waiting upwards of 10-plus years just to get a shot at having a hearing. And if they’re lucky enough to get a hearing, when they walk in the door, they have probably about 1 percent of chance of actually getting their civil rights restored. And so, that is indicative of a broken system. I think the courts have declared it a broken system. And Amendment 4 seeks to fix that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, talk about the history of this.

ARI BERMAN: The history of this law dates back to the Jim Crow era. So, in 1868, Florida had to ratify the 13th, the 14th and the 15th Amendment to rejoin the Union, so they had to ratify voting rights for black Americans. So, what Florida did is they massively expanded the number of felonies in the state, and then they made it so that if you had a felony, you couldn’t vote. And this disproportionately targeted African Americans, to the point, after this law passed, 95 percent of prisoners in Florida’s felon camps were African-American. So this was absolutely a Jim Crow-era law.

And now it’s spread beyond African Americans to the entire state. So you have a situation where, in Florida, about 1.7 million people can’t vote. This amendment would restore the right to vote to 1.4 million of those people. Five hundred thousand are African-American. The rest of them are white and Latino. And I think that’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen such a big coalition rally behind this, because it’s not just African Americans that are being disenfranchised. A lot of white Republican Trump supporters can’t vote in Florida, either.

But the numbers are just so staggering. You’re talking about 10 percent of people in the country’s most important swing state not being able to vote. And I think all the attention on Georgia voter suppression is warranted, but we’re talking about 53,000 people in Georgia who have pending registrations. In Florida, we’re talking about 1.4 million people that might get the right to vote back. So, more people right now are disenfranchised in Florida than any other state, and that’s why Amendment 4 is so important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the movement that’s built around it, in terms of what kind of support it has? It has bipartisan support?

ARI BERMAN: It’s a really remarkable movement that Desmond and others have built. I mean, you’re talking about groups from the ACLU to the Christian Coalition to the Koch brothers’ network that are supporting this. I mean, these groups rarely agree on anything, particularly in the Trump era, and they’re supporting this.

And what’s fascinating to me is that it needs 60 percent of support from voters to pass, so that’s already a pretty high bar. Right now, polling shows that it has about 70 to 75 percent support. So that’s amazing. And I think what’s fascinating is you have a movement by Republicans all across the country to make it harder to vote, but on the ground in Florida, Republicans are supporting this. And what it tells me is that if you get out of the politics, if you get out of talking to politicians, and you go straight to the people, this kind of stuff is popular, that restoring voting rights to ex-felons, automatic registration, early voting. There is broad-based support for a democracy and justice agenda in this country, and what’s happening in Florida right now shows that.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, just to show the significance, go back to 2016. Trump won Florida, beat Hillary Clinton by almost 113,000 votes. A hundred thirteen thousand votes. We’re talking about 1.4 million voters now being—more voters being eligible to vote in Florida.

ARI BERMAN: The number of people disenfranchised in Florida is far larger than the margin of victory in both presidential elections and Senate elections. So, Governor Rick Scott, who has overseen the felon disenfranchisement law, has won two elections by 60,000 votes, at a time that 1.4 million people couldn’t vote in the state. You go back to the 2000 election, Florida, thousands of voters were wrongly labeled as ex-felons and purged from the rolls, which likely cost Al Gore the election. Then a much larger number of people weren’t even able to vote in the first place. So this felon disenfranchisement law has swung elections. It’s disenfranchised millions of people. I think a lot of people realize it’s a relic of Jim Crow. It’s finally time we end this and we move on and we give people second chances.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Desmond Meade, I’d like to ask you—talk about your personal experience. When was the last time—because you’re an ex-felon who also has not been able to vote. When was the last time you voted?

DESMOND MEADE: I think it was during the time of Moses. Well, no, actually, the last time I voted was when I was serving in the military, and that’s been quite a number of years. And so, you know, it’s an act that now I think I treasure even more than I did back then, and that’s something I’m looking forward to do. You know, I mean, we have citizens across this great state of ours who have made mistakes in the past and have paid their debts. And this is a country that really believes that when a debt is paid, guess what? It’s paid. And it’s time for us to move on and experience what being a citizen is all about. And there’s no greater expression in that than being able to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a map of the country and talk about the states. Two states in the country, which everyone, including people with felony convictions, are allowed to vote: Maine and Vermont. You can vote from jail. In the most restrictive states—Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa—all people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised. Florida has the highest number, as has been said, of disenfranchised voters: 1.4 million adults in the state can’t vote because of having a felony conviction. So, Desmond Meade, in this bipartisan coalition that has formed, talk about what it’s like to work with these different groups. And what do the polls indicate for November?

DESMOND MEADE: Well, first of all, we don’t even call ourselves a bipartisan movement. We are an organic, grassroots movement that welcomes and enjoys bipartisan support. We’re not leading with the partisan nature of this topic or the issue of voting. What we’re leading with is the human nature, you know, that there are real people’s lives who are impacted by these policies. And because of that, we’ve been able to, first of all, recognize that felon disenfranchisement now impacts people from all walks of life, which now allows us to go into communities in rural parts of Florida, in urban parts of Florida, and have real conversations with real people and really connect with the pain that they’re feeling.

Because of that—because of that, what we’ve seen is indicative of what we’re seeing now with the hurricane relief efforts that we’ve always seen, that in the aftermath of a hurricane, no one cares how their neighbor voted. No one cares how much money they made. Only thing they see is another human being in need. And that’s the beautiful part of this campaign that we have embraced and we hold onto for dear life, because at the end, we are organizing folks along the lines of humanity. And because of that, we’ve been able to get people that throw off their partisan cloaks and come together as brothers and sisters in this movement, as Americans, that’s rallying around each other knowing that once a debt is paid, it’s paid.

So we can have organizations like TaxWatch, Christian Coalition, Freedom Partners, that stand up and say, “You know what? It is time to bring second chances back to the state of Florida.” And they can do that alongside the ACLU, organizations like Advancement Project, Alliance for Safety and Justice and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. That is, to me, the most beautiful thing that we’re witnessing here. I believe that we are becoming a shining light for the rest of the country about what’s good when people can elevate themselves above partisan bickering, above racial discord, and connect along the lines of humanity for the good of all people.

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