We speak with Florida voting rights activist Desmond Meade about how Republicans like Governor Ron DeSantis are attempting to scare formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions from voting. DeSantis launched an election police force to arrest people on trumped-up voter fraud charges. The arrests overwhelmingly targeted Black people and demonstrate “the state’s failure to have a system in place that can assure any American citizen that lives in the state of Florida whether or not they’re eligible to vote,” says Meade, who spearheaded an initiative to reenfranchise 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions, before it was overturned by Republicans. While several charges of alleged voter fraud in past elections have been dismissed, Meade says the arrests still intimidate qualified voters from casting a ballot.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We look now at how Republicans are still trying to scare former felons away from voting, even as trumped-up charges of voter fraud in past elections have been dismissed in the lead-up to the November 8th midterm elections. It was March 2020, Super Tuesday, when Hervis Rogers was interviewed by CNN’s Ed Lavandera as he stood in line with other voters in Houston, Texas.
ED LAVANDERA: Why did you wait this long to vote?
HERVIS ROGERS: Because I wanted — I figured like it was my duty to vote. I wanted to get my vote in to voice my opinion, and I wasn’t going to let nothing stop me, so I waited it out. We waited for about — six hours?
HERVIS ROGERS: About six hours. A little bit over six hours.
AMY GOODMAN: That interview with Rogers went viral. A year later, he was charged with felony voter fraud for voting when he was ineligible while on felony parole. Last week, a district court judge in Texas set aside his indictment, which was brought by the Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who’s running for reelection and supports former Trump’s claims of the 2020 election was stolen. Days later, Paxton launched a 2022 so-called Election Integrity Team.
This comes after a legal setback in Florida for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, also running for reelection. Last Friday, a Miami man arrested under DeSantis’s newly formed Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security had his charges dismissed. Floridians voted in 2018 to allow formerly incarcerated people with past felony convictions to cast ballots, excluding those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. Robert Lee Wood was among 20 mostly Black voters arrested in August who said they were encouraged to vote by Florida officials and were not made aware of this exclusion, which is not stated on voter registration forms. Police bodycam footage shows how people seemed puzzled by their arrests and didn’t intend to run afoul of the law. This is Tampa resident Romona Oliver being arrested.
ROMONA OLIVER: Oh my god. Hold on.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Wait, wait.
ROMONA OLIVER: Let me tell my husband.
POLICE OFFICER 2: We’ll tell him. He’s right here.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Yes, ma’am. We’ll tell him right here. So, if you could put your hands behind your back, please?
ROMONA OLIVER: Oh my god.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Do not move.
POLICE OFFICER 2: So, ultimately, ma’am, you have a warrant. OK. The warrant —
ROMONA OLIVER: No, no.
POLICE OFFICER 2: Hold on. Listen, I know you’re caught off guard. I understand. Right? So you have a warrant. It’s for voter fraud, OK? Hear me out. It’s an ROR. You know what an ROR is?
ROMONA OLIVER: Oh my god.
POLICE OFFICER 2: You go in, you get booked, and then they’re going to release you from booking.
POLICE OFFICER 1: You can go right out.
POLICE OFFICER 2: You’re going to be right back out. OK?
POLICE OFFICER 1: You’re getting out and right back home.
POLICE OFFICER 2: But you have a warrant.
ROMONA OLIVER: OK. I’m, like, voter fraud? I voted, but I ain’t commit no fraud!
POLICE OFFICER 2: Well, so that’s the thing. I don’t know exactly what happened with it, but you do have a warrant, and that’s what it’s for. OK?
ROMONA OLIVER: Oh my god.
POLICE OFFICER 2: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Orlando, Florida, by Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He spearheaded Amendment 4, which reenfranchised 1.4 million Floridians. His latest book is titled Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Desmond. As we watch this video and this woman saying “Oh my god,” can you talk about the 20 or so Floridians who were just arrested by the so-called election integrity — the election police force that DeSantis has just created?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, good morning, Amy. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
You know, I’m looking at the video and just hearing this woman speak, and it just infuriates me, you know, and almost like getting retraumatized again, thinking about those 20 people, some of whom were arrested by SWAT teams — right? — and having helicopters over their homes as if they’re Pablo Escobar or something, you know, and each one of these individuals terrified, some being drug out their home in the middle of the night still in their pajamas, wouldn’t even be allowed to get into regular clothes. And to think all because of the state’s failure to have a system in place that could assure any American citizen that lives in the state of Florida whether or not they’re eligible to vote. And so, it’s very infuriating. And I know that, you know, we talk about the impact, the chilling impact that this can have on especially returning citizen voters, and sadly, Amy, the damage has already been done. Right now we’re forced to try to mitigate those damages by responding to these arrests.
AMY GOODMAN: Desmond, just clarify your terms. Explain what you mean — and you consider yourself a returning citizen — by this term “returning citizens.”
DESMOND MEADE: I’m glad you asked that, Amy. You know, returning citizen is used interchangeably with justice-impacted people or people who have had previous felony convictions, who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. We tend to shy away from using the word “felon” because that is a dehumanizing term. And unfortunately, you know, this country is accustomed to using that word, but when you do that, you kind of lose the humanity in some of these stories.
You know, when you showed that gentleman that was excited about being able to vote and was willing to stand in line for hours to do so — right? — that’s the human part of it. And I appreciate you for showing that, right? But it reminds me even of the young man who was investigated for voting fraud talking about how he’s been hidden away from society for so long, and when he was told by the supervisor of elections that he was eligible to vote, how he felt like he was finally part of society. And these are the stories that we have to uplift, because it’s more about the people and less about the politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you felt when you were able then to vote and why this was so important to you.
DESMOND MEADE: Amy, let me tell you, you know, and I know it’s hard for people to wrap their head around, but I really do believe that when we talk about voting, it actually transcends partisan politics. I know every time we say voting, it’s within a conversation about Democrats and Republicans. But when I went to vote for the first time in my very first presidential election in 2020, you know, I didn’t feel as if I was voting as a Democrat or a Republican or even as an African American. What I felt I was doing was engaging in an act that validated my existence on this planet, that validated my existence within the society, that my voice matters, right? And it was such a sacred experience that I felt, and it really drove home why we were so adamant in fighting for everyone, every returning citizen having an opportunity to participate in our democracy and how important everyone’s participation is to our democracy in order for our democracy to be more vibrant and thrive.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s not just returning citizens who are excited about voting; the state of Florida. You spearheaded Amendment 4. It overwhelmingly passed. But then, can you talk about how the Republican-led Legislature tried to restrict what the people of Florida — Democrat, Republican, independent — voted for? You, actually, Desmond, had very little resistance in this amendment, that enabled what? Something like 1.4 million more Floridians to vote.
DESMOND MEADE: Yeah, and you’re right, Amy. You know, I think your previous guest alluded to it, that we’re in a time now in this country where you have elected officials that are blatantly ignoring the will of the people. You know, here in Florida, the people clearly spoke. And we had a very beautiful moment when we passed Amendment 4, because we had people from all walks of life and all political persuasions — Democrats, Republicans, independents. As a matter of fact, over a million people who voted for Governor DeSantis also voted for Amendment 4.
However, you know, I believe since the formation of this country, there has always been a select group of politicians who would much rather pick and choose who gets to vote for them as opposed to letting everyone have a say in how their country is governed. As a matter of fact, it hasn’t been too long since women were given the right to vote. There was a time in this country when there were politicians that strenuously believed that women should not be able to have a say in how this country is ran, and they were willing to abuse women, they were willing to incarcerate women to prevent them from having a say. And this is the same thing that we’re seeing right now.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Desmond Meade, let’s go back to this arrest of the 20 people, almost all African American, who were arrested and what they were told. I mean, to be very clear here, this is more than arresting them; it sends a message to people who have been incarcerated — or not — in Florida, “You better watch out; if you vote, you might be arrested,” whether or not later on the charges get dropped. But the idea that, in fact, a number of them did not think they could vote, but they were told, “Don’t worry about it. Sign up. And if you can’t, you won’t be able to vote. You’ll be told.”
DESMOND MEADE: Yes, you’re perfectly right, Amy. I tell folks that there’s a bigger story within the story that’s told. You know, prior to the August arrests, there were some arrests in April, I think, in Alachua County. And in this particular case, you had 10 men that were arrested. Some were drug out of homeless shelters. There was a grandfather that was arrested in front of his grandkids. And these gentlemen were all told by the supervisor of elections that it was OK for them to register to vote. And they did, right? And what we’re seeing is that — and we know that there is probably hundreds, even thousands, more individuals that are facing a possibility of being arrested or even prosecuted.
At the end of the day, you know, we’ve always stated that the burden is on the state. When a person fills out a voter registration form — even a third-party voter registration organization, when they help someone to register to vote, it is not their responsibility to ensure that that person is totally a qualified voter. They do not have the resources that the state has, right? And so, those applications are then sent to the secretary of state, whose responsibility it is to run the applications through whatever various systems it have to ensure whether or not that person is a qualified voter. If that person is not qualified, then the secretary of state would not issue a voter identification card. However, if that person is qualified, the state would send that person a voter identification card. And when that person receives that card, there’s no other option but to believe that they are a legitimate voter, right? Because if you can’t rely on the state to give you assurances about whether or not you can vote, then who else can you rely on?
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a New York Times piece about one of the people arrested, named Robert Lee Wood, who received a voter card from Florida six or seven weeks after filling out the application. And then he gets arrested. So, can you talk, as we wrap up, Desmond Meade, about how many people who were formally imprisoned do have the right to vote in this country, who may not know this, or just what is the population we’re talking about?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, let me tell you about Florida, because Florida is such a pivotal state. You know, there is over 600,000 returning citizens that are living in Florida right now that are eligible to register to vote and participate in elections, right? But they face the challenge of, number one, the chaos surrounding the payment of fines and fees that kind of discourages them from even trying to vote, and then now you have these arrests.
One very important thing, though, I want to note, Amy, is that I remember when there was a raid on Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s home, how some people were questioning the timing of the FBI raid, saying that it’s suspicious that they would raid two years before a presidential election. Now, my statement to them is that if people are concerned about the timing two years off — right? — here in Florida, these arrests started on the eve of elections — right? — whether it was the primary election that we had in August — right? — and now, of course, the general election that we have here in November. And so, these arrests are frighteningly close to elections, and it can’t be any other conclusion to make other than that this is an intimidating tactic to scare people away from participating in our democracy.
And so, folks need to be outraged at this. Folks need to fight back. And one of the ways they can do this, Amy, is that we’ve set up bail funds for these individuals, and we’ve set up a legal defense fund. The gentleman that you talked about whose case was dropped, we were able to provide an attorney for this young man so he’s able to successfully challenge these charges in court.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Desmond.
*DESMOND MEADE: And we’re providing attorneys for any individuals who are arrested on these charges, and we’re making sure that people are also able to bail out if they cannot afford to post bail.
AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, we want to thank you for being with us, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy. Tune in November 8th for our three-hour election night special beginning at 9:00 Eastern. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much.