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Voting Activist Desmond Meade on Re-enfranchising People & Why “Ex-Felon” Is a Dehumanizing Label

StoryNovember 13, 2020
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Image Credit: Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

In Florida, tens of thousands of newly eligible voters who were previously disenfranchised due to their criminal records turned out to the polls for the 2020 election. Amendment 4, a measure that in 2018 overturned a Jim Crow-era law aimed at keeping African Americans from voting, restored voting rights to people with nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentences and was hailed as the biggest win for voting rights in decades. However, hundreds of thousands of people in Florida remain disenfranchised due to a modern-day poll tax that requires formerly incarcerated voters to pay all fees and fines to courts before they can cast a ballot. We speak with Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, about the ongoing fight to re-enfranchise people. He voted for president for the first time ever this year. “That act of voting gave me a deeper appreciation for what I was engaged in,” Meade says. “The right to vote is sacred.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report, as we end today’s show in Florida.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s the sound of supporters cheering Desmond Meade as he came out of a polling place, where he voted for president for the first time in 30 years. Desmond’s visit to the polls came after a years-long battle to restore the right to vote for an estimated 1.4 million people in Florida who were formerly disenfranchised due to their criminal records.

In 2018, Desmond Meade led the successful fight for Amendment 4, a measure to restore voting rights to people with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences. The constitutional amendment overturned a Jim Crow-era law aimed at keeping African Americans from voting and was hailed as the biggest win for voting rights in decades.

But since its passage, Florida Republicans, led by the governor, Ron DeSantis, have fought to keep people from voting. The Republican Senate passed a bill requiring formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions to repay all fines and fees to courts before their voting rights were restored, sparking a prolonged legal battle. Hundreds of thousands of people in Florida remained disenfranchised during this election due to the modern-day poll tax, as many described it. Despite this, tens of thousands of newly eligible voters returned to the polls.

For more on Amendment 4’s impact on the election, the ongoing battle to re-enfranchise people, and his own election story, we go to Orlando, where we are joined by Desmond Meade himself, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He’s out with a new book. It’s called Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Desmond Meade. It’s great to have you with us. Describe that moment when you walked into your polling place and cast your vote for president of the United States for the first time in 30 years.

DESMOND MEADE: Well, first of all, good morning, Amy. It’s always great to see you.

And I can tell you that that moment was surreal. You know, that was my first time voting for president. And just the act of voting really gave me a deeper appreciation for what I was engaged in, you know, realizing the sacrifices that was made by my ancestors so I could have that opportunity, even taking with me the spirit of the over 700,000 returning citizens in Florida who could not get to vote because of the financial obstacles that our Florida Legislature had placed in front of them.

But, Amy, I could tell you, man, when I was in that act of voting, you know, just like previously even in the primary, I really had a deeper appreciation for the sacredness of the right to vote. And even though there’s a lot of political things about voting, I realized that voting actually transcended partisan politics, even racial anxieties, because it took me to a place that said something very simple, but yet powerful. It said that I am. It said that I existed, that my voice matters. Right? And it validated me and made me a complete American citizen. And I think that that was something that felt so great that I just can’t help but want every American citizen to experience that feeling and understand that the right to vote is sacred and we should honor it by actually voting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I remember going down to Melbourne, Florida, to interview you on stage, Desmond. And at the time, it was quite amazing, the level of organizing that had gone on for Amendment 4, which would affect 1.4 million, as you call people “returning citizens.” And this just flew through. It sailed through. And it won by an overwhelming majority. It was only after it was passed that the Republicans moved in on this, that Governor DeSantis — explain what happened and the demand that was made on people before they could vote, after they came out of prison.

DESMOND MEADE: Amy, I think what we’ve seen is an example of the arrogance of politicians, you know, that they sat idly by for 150 years while this policy was in place in Florida, and didn’t lift a finger to change it. But the people took matters into their own hands. And then, once we passed — overwhelmingly passed — Amendment 4, with a strong bipartisan support, people from all walks of life and all political persuasions — the people did that — then you had the arrogance of politicians that insisted that they insert themselves into this beautiful movement and determine the qualifications for people to be able to register to vote. And they laid out a series of financial obligations that a person must pay before they’re even able to register.

Our ensuing lawsuit, by the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Legal Defense Fund, successfully challenged that in the lower courts. But, unfortunately, the state insisted on fighting back. They apparently want to force American citizens to choose between being able to put food on their table or voting. And that’s totally contrary to what democracy is all about.

And so, rather than sit back and wallow in the sorrow and complain about the state, we decided that we’re going to approach this the way we’ve always approached things. And that’s, when we see obstacles, we turn them into opportunities. And we organized the entire United States, where over 90,000 individuals across the state and corporations and celebrities and athletes and sports teams donated over $27 million to our Fines and Fees Fund. And we were able to pay off the fines and fees of over 40,000 returning citizens. And we know, since the passage of Amendment 4, we were able to register — in the face of this pandemic and all of the obstacles and the uncertainty about registration, we were still able to register over 87,000 returning citizens since the passage of Amendment 4.

AMY GOODMAN: So, 1.4 million would have been eligible. President Trump won in Florida by close to 400,000. Not saying everyone who came out of prison who had a felony conviction would have voted against Trump, but, to say the least, this is extremely significant.

DESMOND MEADE: Oh, most definitely. You know, one of the things that I told my staff, even before the first vote was counted, I told them that we won. We won because we were able to impact so many lives in the state of Florida, people who would have never thought that they would be able to vote again. We’re seeing people in their sixties and seventies. We even had a lady, 84 years old, she was able to vote for the first time in all of her life. And then you had people — we had a young lady in South Florida who was given six months to live, Amy. And her dying wish was not to visit an exotic location or meet a celebrity. Her dying wish was to be able to cast a ballot, to be able to feel what it felt like to be a complete citizen and have their voices heard. And that passion and that desire was something that was indicative in thousands upon thousands of returning citizens throughout the state of Florida.

So, our efforts reinvigorated hope in the communities and in the individuals who would have thought that there was no opportunity for them to have their voices heard. And because we passed Amendment 4, it was able to inspire a movement across the country. In California, where they passed Prop 17 to allow people on parole to be able to vote, it’s huge. And we’ve seen what happened in Iowa and in Kentucky, in so many places. And so, we know that we have touched hundreds of thousands of lives, and it has increased voter engagement throughout this country. And so, we won.

AMY GOODMAN: Desmond, the numbers are staggering. When we talked about this in 2018, one in five African Americans in Florida, more than 10% of Florida’s adult population, were ineligible to vote in the 2018 election in Florida. Then, one in 16 Black Americans cannot vote due to their criminal record. This is a staggering figure.

DESMOND MEADE: Yes, it is. And I talk about this in my new book, you know, where the challenge is me as an African American man that was leading this effort and understanding the staggering impact that felon disenfranchisement had on the African American community, and not just Black men, but Black women, as well, you know, to be able to thread that needle, understanding that felon disenfranchisement grew from just impacting newly released slaves to really impacting all Americans, and how it was, I think, challenging to really bring in a much broader audience without ignoring the impact that it has on the African American community. But we were able to successfully do it, I think, billing this as an all-American issue, understanding that even if it’s just African Americans that are hurting because of policies, that means that all Americans are hurting, because we are all connected.

AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, talk about the term “returning citizens.”

DESMOND MEADE: Wow, that’s a great question, Amy. And I can tell you this. A lot of — one of the things that impact policies, and no matter what policies you’re dealing with, is that narrative, right? How are you viewing people? And when you use the term “ex-felon,” “convict,” “ex-con,” what you’re doing is you’re actually dehumanizing that individual while desensitizing the public towards that individual or the issue that they’re dealing with. We’ve seen the United States use this tactic before they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki by demonizing the Japanese people.

This is the same thing that we see today with the use of the word “ex-felon.” Where else do you see anyone going around calling somebody, “Oh, that’s an ex-liar,” or “That’s an ex-adulterer,” or “That’s an ex-tax evader,” for the rest of their lives? When you call someone an “ex-felon” — right? — what you gloss over, the fact that that’s someone’s son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, and they’re still deserving of being treated with dignity and respect, in spite of what they’ve done. We have to be very careful on how we treat the least among us. And so, the first step is to really try to humanize individuals who may have been caught up in the criminal justice system, and recognize that they’re still a citizen of their community, their state and this country, and they should be treated accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about other people’s stories in your book and continually, as tens of thousands were able to vote as a result of your work. I wanted to turn to the former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, one of the 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida who became eligible to vote in the election. Of course, DeSantis, the governor, whittled that down. But Vick discussed his journey with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, your group, Desmond.

MICHAEL VICK: Today, I’m going to vote. This is the first time I’m going to vote, you know, for various reasons, mainly because of my past. … I had to go through a whole process of getting my absentee ballot, had to go through some loops, had to get everything sent out here to California. Definitely, it’s your right to vote. … My absentee ballot finally arrived, and I’m ready to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s former NFL star Michael Vick. Desmond Meade, tell us more. And tell us more about your book, the book that just came out, because you have written another, as well.

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah, so, Michael Vick was great to work with. You know, I think his story really speaks to a couple of things. Number one, just that desire that people have to be a part of this country, to be a part of this process, right? And then the other thing that it speaks to is that, you know, and the issue that we dealt with was that, even though Florida Legislature had imposed this poll tax and it impacted 774,000 returning citizens, there were still 500,000 to 600,000 returning citizens who could have registered to vote without having any financial obligations to pay. However, they didn’t know. And I termed this as the Juneteenth effect, where the slaves in Galveston, Texas, didn’t find out that they were free until two years later. You know, here, passage of Amendment 4, we came up on our second-year anniversary, and there are so many people who did not know that they could register to vote in spite of their previous felony conviction. And we see that phenomenon even in states like Georgia, Louisiana and so many states across the country, where people are walking around believing that they cannot be a part of this democratic process because of a previous felony conviction. Michael Vick kind of exemplified this. And he was actually able to vote for quite some time, but he didn’t realize the steps that he needed to take. And we were so grateful to be able to work with him and really walk him through that process and make sure that, yes, he did qualify, under the Amendment 4, passing of Amendment 4, and he was successfully able to register and be able to vote. And that’s an amazing thing.

And I think that that’s an experience that we want more returning citizens, not only in the state of Florida, but across the country, to experience, because I do believe that people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system will make a significant impact in elections in the future, as well as around criminal justice reform. And I’ve got to remind you, Amy, that it’s not just about the presidential race. There are so many down-ballot races, that of state attorneys, of DAs, sheriffs, judges, public defenders, clerk of courts and supervisors of elections, that are up for reelection throughout the upcoming years. And people who have been impacted the most have an opportunity to have their voices heard in a very, very significant way. And in my book, you know, I talk about how, in spite of the fact that we may have made mistakes in the past, in spite of the fact that society may have [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

DESMOND MEADE: Right — we have an opportunity to overcome and be a changemaker in our community and in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, we want to thank you so much for being with us, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy, spearheaded Amendment 4, which re-enfranchised 1.4 million Floridians, who he’s still fighting for, his new book called Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.

A very Happy Birthday to Ishmael Daro! Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira. Stay safe. Wear a mask. I’m Amy Goodman.

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