If ex-felons get an easier path to getting their civil rights restored, they can thank Desmond Meade. The Miami native has taken up the issue as an international cause for more than a decade.
Meade, an attorney, is the director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. For years, he has quietly led a petition drive to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot for automatic restoration. The item failed to make the ballot in 2016. But with help from the ACLU of Florida, the NAACP, churches, civic and grassroots groups, they are trying to get a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot.
Meade has a personal stake in restoring civil rights to the millions of Floridians who lost them because of felony convictions. He’s counted in that number, after serving time for possession of a firearm charge. That conviction, among other things, limit a person’s ability to find good jobs and affordable housing, he said. “It also limits your voice by not being able to vote,” he said. That restriction stopped him from casting a vote in the 2016 presidential and state elections, which meant he couldn’t vote for his wife Sheena, a candidate for a Florida House seat. While she did not win, “my vote could have helped,” he said.
“Not being able to vote in the presidential election hurt, but the worst hurt was not being able to vote for my wife. That was more personal,” he said.
Meade first started his fight for rights restoration in 2006. He went full steam with the broader campaign for a constitutional amendment in 2014. The process for both has been frustrating, he said.
“To go through this years after completing your sentence is frustrating. You’re not considered a full citizen,” Meade said. What motivates him after 11 years is hearing stories of other people who are in a similar situation.
The timing to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot this time may be right. Before, the campaigns to push the medical marijuana and solar panel constitutional amendments overshadowed the subject voting rights. Now with those two issues settled, concerns about rights restoration and assaults on voting rights are top concerns of national civil rights and civil liberties organizations.
VOTER REGISTRATION AMENDMENT
As envisioned, the Voter Restoration Amendment would automatically restore voting rights for all nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Felons convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, would not be eligible.
On March 6, Meade and other members of the Floridians for Fair Democracy — the umbrella name given to the groups involved — argued before the state Supreme Court that the language for their initiative meets the constitutional single subject requirement and is not confusing or misleading to voters.
If the court rules favorably, the fair democracy group still would have to get about 700,000 signatures from around the state by a February 2018 deadline. Meade said he expects the Supreme court will issue a decision on the ballot language in April.
Adora Obi Nweze, the president of the Florida State Conference of NAACP branches, said voting is the top issue in the United States, but especially in Florida with the high numbers of people who are disenfranchised.
“We have more people criticizing the vote, than talking about the value of the vote,” Nweze said. She said after a ballot loss, people tend to give up. “But you have to fight harder. You still can win.”
Regaining voting rights could build up the Black voting base in Florida.
According to ACLU, more than 1.6 million Floridians are ineligible to vote because of a felony record, the highest number of disenfranchised citizens in the United States. Of that figure, activists say about 700,000 are Black.
Kirk Bailey, political director for the ACLU of Florida, said that no one at the March 6 hearing spoke in opposition to the ballot language. He takes that as a positive sign. He also believes the electorate is ready for such a change.
“We have cautious optimism that citizens will see restoring rights is the right thing to do. I think most folks understand that’s an appropriate chance for people to have,” Bailey said. “That’s the heart of our strategy.”
Kirk cited more recent successful ballot amendment issues as a bellwether. Funding for parks, and medical marijuana are two of those issues, he said.
“The results indicate that Floridans are willing to take a live-and-let-live attitude,” Kirk said. “Voting rights is not dissimilar in that sense. The idea of second chances resonates with people.”
Pastor Rhonda Thomas, an organizer with Faith in Florida, has made it her mission to get the spiritual community to be more active in restoration campaigns. She talks directly with ministers and urges them to get their members involved.
“We have to educate our congregations. There are people [in the congregation] who we think have the right to vote but don’t,” Thomas said. “They’re ashamed and feel like an outcast. We work to make them feel they’re not an outcast.”
“Blacks are impacted differently in everything we do,” Thomas said. She pointed out that the effects are more far-reaching than people might think.
“With a felony it’s so hard to get a job, but also affordable [housing] compared with whites,” she said. Thomas added that the differences are stark at clemency hearings, where former inmates go before the governor and other cabinet members to make their request.
White people, she said, focus on regaining their right to use firearms, while Black men and women want the right to vote.
“I hear them say they want to go hunting. The right to vote, that’s secondary,” Thomas said.
Take Wendell Bradley of Opa-locka. He served just over two years starting in 2000 in Florida on a battery charge. He later moved to Georgia seeking better working conditions during the 2007 market crash. There, he received a voting card and participated in the local and the presidential election.
When he returned to South Florida, he applied for a voter registration card. This time, though, he received a letter saying he was ineligible because of his conviction.
“They said because of my incarceration, I couldn’t get a voter registration card,” he said, sounding frustrated. “I got one in Georgia, why couldn’t I get one in Florida?”
“It’s hard to have this hanging over your head. Places see your background they don’t hire you.”
Nweze said Florida’s Black community as a whole has to understand that voting rights is a No. 1 concern. “All these issues we have in our country — education, health, criminal justice, environment — none of the other things can happen without the right to vote,” she said.
The veteran civil rights leader fears the public has “lost concern for the fight.”
“We want somebody else to do it. We’re not looking that the whole piece depends on [us]. Everyone has to see this as a personal goal,” Nweze said. “The problem we’re having is we’re allowing others to go to the polls instead of us.”
Starting Saturday, the Florida NAACP is hosting a town hall discussion in Orlando with other statewide Black organizations, including fraternities, sororities, Masonic and civic groups, to discuss how to move forward on restoration and other voting rights.
“There are pressing issues that are coming up in 2018: census and redistricting. This is related to voting,” Nweze said.