Download an MP3 of this interview.
In this episode of Who Belongs? we speak with Desmond Meade, a prominent organizer and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led a successful campaign to repeal a Jim Crow-era law that had banned people with felony convictions from voting. The repeal of the law through a state-wide ballot initiative in Florida during the November 2018 elections led to 1.4 million people regaining their voting rights. This is also the first episode in a series of shows we're recording in collaboration with the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project here at the Haas Institute to highlight work people are doing on the ground all over the country to help activate civic participation.
For more on this issue check the following links:
- Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (Coalition website)
- “Love Prevails”: Floridians Celebrate Massive Restoration of Voting Rights to People with Felonies (Democracy Now!)
- Will Florida’s Ex-Felons Finally Regain the Right to Vote? (New York Times)
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Outro song: "Wide Eyes" by Chad Crouch
Desmond Meade: In our campaign, we did not ignore anybody. We gave an opportunity for anybody to get on board, and so we had a guy who was a Bernie person, who believed in Bernie, that couldn't vote. He was there on the ground working hard. We had a biker for Trump that couldn't vote. He was on the ground working hard for Amendment 4. When you think about it, how could we get people to not vote against their own self-interest? That's what we did. That was the question that people have been asking for years.
Marc Abizeid: That's the voice of Desmond Meade, a prominent organizer in Florida who led a successful campaign in the state to repeal a Jim Crow era law that banned people with felony convictions from voting. In this episode of Who Belongs? Desmond describes some of the strategies his campaign used to gain public support for the repeal of that law through a state ballot initiative this past November which led to about 1.4 million people regaining their right to vote. This is also the first episode in a series of shows we're recording in collaboration with The Civic Engagement Narrative Change project here at the Haas Institute which will be highlighting work people are doing around the country to help activate civic participation. I'm Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of Who Belongs? And this was our conversation with organizer Desmond Meade.
Marc Abizeid: Well, first of all, Desmond Meade, welcome to Berkeley and welcome to our podcast, Who Belongs?
Desmond Meade: Thank you for having me.
Desmond, you're the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition which for years has been campaigning to repeal a law that's more than 100 years old that restricts people who have felony convictions and served their time and then completed their sentences from voting and you won. Last November you had a referendum on the ballot and it won more than 60% which is what it needed, and you guys got that law repealed. So can you start by telling us a little bit about that amendment called Amendment 4 about what it entails, who it affects, et cetera?
Desmond Meade: Well that's great. So, yeah, that law has actually been in effect in Florida for over 150 years and we know the history of felon disenfranchisement where newly free slaves were ... these codes were created or these Jim Crow laws were created to diminish the newfound political clout of the recently free slaves, and so for years Florida has held onto these policies and over the last several years Florida became only one of four states that still practice this permanently disenfranchising American citizens, and it was the worst at one point at its height, over 1.68 million Floridians could not vote because of a prior felony conviction and we accounted for at least a quarter of the total population of folks in the entire state who couldn't vote.
So what Amendment 4 did was it sought to create an alternative pathway for a person to regain voting rights, and what it did was it allowed for the removal of the disqualification from voting for people with felony convictions once they've completely served their time. Unfortunately we had some carve outs and so people who were convicted of murder and people who were convicted of any felony sexual offense would not benefit from this alternative pathway, but they weren't foreclosed from the standard route.
But we looked into it and we had to go forward, and so we ... this amendment eventually just freed at least 1.4 million folks and allowed them to really regain their citizenship status.
Marc Abizeid: When does it take effect? What do you see as far as implementation of the amendment?
Desmond Meade: You know, the amendment has already taken effect. On January 8th, people, myself included, was able to walk into our local supervisor of elections office and register to vote, and within a matter of days, people have started getting their voter registration cards in the mail, which is a great thing, but I want to step back for a second because I want to talk about what happened on November 6th, on election night. I believe first of all we had over 5.1 million people in Florida that voted yes on our referendum, Amendment 4, and that was over a million more votes than any candidate received that was on the ballot.
The two many gubernatorial candidates was Rhonda Sanchez and Andrew Gillum, and we had so many votes that one thing that we knew was that at least one million people who voted for Rhonda Sanchez also voted for Amendment 4. What I love to tell people and what excites me ... I'm excited, the fact that 1.4 million people was able to get their voting rights back, but I'm even more excited by how we were able to do it, and so when I looked at those 5.1 million votes, I seen that those votes were not votes that was based on fear or hate but rather they were 5.1 million votes that were based on love, forgiveness and redemption, and I think that this country and the state of Florida but for a few moments on election night got to witness love actually winning the day.
I thought that that was beautiful because we were able to take a politically volatile issue in a politically volatile state during a volatile climate, a political climate, and we were able to win with no opposition and we surpassed our 60% threshold by five percentage points, so that was at 65, and we were able to actually move a major policy piece and it was supported by people from all walks of life, all racial backgrounds, all political persuasions.
Marc Abizeid: That's reflected inside the coalition as well. I mean, you mentioned it got like 65% so nearly two thirds of the voters who voted, voted in favor of Amendment 4.
Desmond Meade: Yeah.
Marc Abizeid: Which shows you that it has support both on the left and the right. It's not just a progressive cause, and in fact, in your coalition, you had I think the political director, he's actually a Republican, isn't he?
Desmond Meade: Yes.
Marc Abizeid: He's profiled in the New York Times. He used to be a lobbyist. He went to jail for corruption. He came out. He was disenfranchised and he got involved with you, so can you talk a little bit about that and about that strategy of bringing in people from the other side?
Desmond Meade: That was a strategy that actually was developed by just being on the ground, and so I'm a strong advocate. Now that I've gone through this ballot initiative, I could tell you, it is so important to really be connected to what's happening on the ground, because we could lose sight. If we're far removed from what's happening, we could actually really lose sight of the essence of what's moving issues. So, with me, when I first came into advocacy around felon disenfranchisement, hey, I knew what the narrative was. You know, how it disproportionately impacts African American, you know, and I fed into that narrative and that was something that was a legitimate focus about the disproportionate impact on African Americans but what I didn't know at the time was that it inadvertently created a narrative that created a false illusion.
That was a false illusion that really made this an African American issue so people would think, "Oh, it's only impacting African Americans, and because it's only impacting the African Americans, definitely no Republicans are gonna be for it because African Americans vote for Democrat," right? And so it fed into these narratives that, "Oh yeah, it's a Black issue and Republicans are against it," right? When I'm hitting the road in Florida, the first thing that I'm seeing is that, wait a minute, number one is that I'm running across people who don't look like me and not even Democrat, and I'm realizing that wait a minute, this thing is actually ... it impacts people from all walks of life, from all political persuasions, and what stood out more to me than anything else was that just hearing those stories had really touched my heart and there was a human rights element to this. A human rights element that transcends partisan or all of these different labels that we ... whether they're progressive, conservative, far left, far right, all that.
Wait a minute, what about humanity, you know? So being able to travel the state and talking to real people and hearing the stories just really amplified that, wait a minute, there's a more human message to this than any other kind of message that was out there, and I just happened to run across Neil Volz. One day I was speaking at a school, one of the colleges down there in Southwest Florida, and he was able to identity what I was talking about and he liked to tell people ... He thought he was gonna be the only fire hydrant at an all dog show, right? But he felt comfortable with my conversation, so my conversation ... I wasn't railing against Republicans or conservatives. I wasn't railing against white people. I was railing for humans in anything, right? Railing against a system that is now originally intended for me or to deprive me of the right to vote, but like a tumor, when left unchecked, it spread to the rest of the body so now it's impacting everybody.
And I made it a "we" issue instead of a "my" issue, right? Because of that, people were able to buy into that. People were able to invest themselves, so I created ... What essentially happened was I didn't start out already limiting myself, who I am, limiting the cause and limiting who can help me, right? Or who can support. I started out in such a way where everybody was able to be a part of this, and because of that, people like Neil were able to be in meetings and say, "Hey, this is my problem too and I want to be part of the solution and I can bring my family and my friends and my network to the solution," and that is essentially what happened, was that you got an organic grassroots movement from people from all over that just was able to transcend race and politics.
Marc Abizeid: How many other states in the country are also affected by similar laws that restrict, disenfranchise people?
Desmond Meade: Well I think the majority of states, I would say ... eventually say about 48 of the states, have some type of law policy on the book that would disenfranchise a person at some point. There are two states that don't, Maine and Vermont. You never lose your right to vote, but then the other 44 states, they have a pathway, a very clear pathway, for an individual to navigate the way they would earn the right to vote back. There were four states, Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and Florida, that permanently disenfranchised a person and the only way that they could've gotten their civil rights back ... voting rights is included in that packet, was to petition the governor and if the governor decided that he wanted to or she wanted to, then that would happen.
But clemency is not a right and the governor could essentially just say, "You know what? I'm not gonna pardon anyone. I'm not gonna give anyone clemency" and that's that, and there was nothing that you could do about it. So we had to create another way to end that permanent disenfranchisement, so now that we have Florida off of the books, we have three states remaining and just recently we've heard that Iowa's governor now is contemplating placing an amendment on the ballot that would lift that band for former felons.
Marc Abizeid: Now, you have a law degree. You graduated from Florida ...
Desmond Meade: Florida International University College of Law.
Marc Abizeid: But one thing you said in the past is that even though you have that degree, you actually can't sit for the bar.
Desmond Meade: Can't sit for the bar.
Marc Abizeid: Is that still the case even after Amendment 4?
Desmond Meade: That is still the case now because what this amendment dealt with was only voting rights, and so there is still a civil rights restoration requirement that I have to fulfill in order for me to apply to the Florida Bar.
Marc Abizeid: But there's a host of other things too aside from voting and aside from sitting for the bar. Can you talk about some of the other restrictions?
Desmond Meade: Yeah, so the immediate, in your face restrictions are I can't sit on a jury and I can't run for office. Those are the immediate, in your face, this is it, but then there are other collateral consequences. There are occupational license restrictions, so there are certain occupational license I won't be able to get until my civil rights have been restored. There's housing restrictions. In certain subdivisions in the state of Florida you have homeowner's associations that have written within their bylaws provisions that will prevent me from owning or even renting a home in that subdivision unless my civil rights have been restored, and so we ... In the state of Florida I think a person with a felony conviction faces over 235 different collateral consequences that's associated with that.
Yeah, so these laws, they're most egregious in some of those states that you mentioned like Florida and Kentucky and Virginia because of the disproportionate impact they have on Black people and there's a historical reason for that. It goes back to Jim Crow. It goes back to the ...
Desmond Meade: So one of the things we used to highlight back in the day was how the laws was tailored ... The laws that limited your access to a lot of benefits was tailored towards the type of crimes that folks believed that African Americans would commit, and so for instance in Alabama when these Jim Crow laws came about, a person would lose their voting rights for hitting their wife but they wouldn't lose it for killing their wife, because the white person was more likely to kill their wife and the black person was more likely to hit them, so the laws that disenfranchised a person were ones that they would expect African Americans or the newly released slaves to actually commit.
That's just our history. I think that most of the states have taken steps to kind of erase that path, that past. I'm hoping and I'm believing that with this recent win in Florida that we can take some more steps towards actually dealing with the restoration of civil rights. I would love to have something like Maine and Vermont where you never lose your rights.
Marc Abizeid: Yeah, it's like Canada. So, if you want to make a comparison to Canada ... Canada, you can vote even if you're in prison. The same with Maine and Vermont. So it's not like you've got to finish your sentence and then you've got to go through some process. It's even when you're still in prison, they give you registration cards, they give you election material, they encourage you to vote whereas here ... and it's countrywide. It's not up to the provinces whereas in the US, it's up to the states. So, how come now someone that has ... This might be a good question because you have a law degree. I want to know, because of the history of these laws, especially in the South, and you can see the effects, that they were clearly designed to be able to exclude Black people from voting and participating in civic life, from serving on juries.
Now, this is historical and contemporary. You can see it still have the same effects today, so why isn't this ... these types of laws in the South and across the country, a violation of federal laws that outlaw discrimination based on race? Things like the civil rights act and things like the 14th Amendment? I mean, can't you make a case ... Don't you have the evidence to show ...
Desmond Meade: We have, but here's the thing. We have made the case and it's been substantiated before the United Nations that we are in violation ... A lot of our laws are in violation of human rights, and I can't recall the name of the treaty, the particular treaty that the United States is a signatory to, but they're in violation of this human rights accord because of these type of laws like around felon disenfranchisement. A few years back I personally went to the United Nations to testify about this issue, so the violation is there. Whether or not the United States want to do anything about it is a different story.
So this is even when President Obama was in office, okay? So let's be real with this. There was not an appetite to change that, partially because there is a separation. State rights versus federal rights, right? And that a lot of the power rests within the state, and it's a hard uphill battle to do something otherwise. So it's really up to the states to change that and have the willpower to do so, and if it's up to the states, that means that the power of each state rests within the people and it's the people that have to arrest that power away from elected officials, and that's what we were able to do in Florida because at some point we had to say that this has been in the politician's court for far too long.
They didn't have the political willpower to do anything about it, so we had to take matters into our own hands, and that's what we did. We said, "We know this is wrong and you don't want to fix it so we're gonna fix it for you."
Marc Abizeid: I mean, you can't sue? I mean, you can't bring these kinds of cases ... As an organizer and as someone with a law degree-
Desmond Meade: As an organizer, I wouldn't want to sue, believe it or not.
Marc Abizeid: Why?
Desmond Meade: Because I think there's a better way than suing, because I could sue and I could win but to me that's a hollow win, compared to I could organize on the ground and we could change the law ourselves and now there's more people invested in that, you know? So you could feed a hungry man a fish today, he's gonna be hungry tomorrow, but if you teach a hungry man how to fish, he'll never have to be hungry, right? Me filing a lawsuit is just feeding a hungry man. Me organizing a ballot initiative is teaching a bunch of hungry men how to fish, and now you have a movement.
Marc Abizeid: So then, what's next for the movement?
Desmond Meade: Wow, that's a great question, right? I believe that ... so, there's a couple things there, man, and it requires courage and that's something ... that's a word that I've been using a lot of lately because one of the hardest things for us to do is actually self-reflect, and we have to be courageous enough to do it. It is so easy for us to point a finger at other people and talk about how morally bankrupt they are or what they're doing wrong, but how often do we look at ourselves and see what role do we play in the situation and what can we do to make things better? So, I use that word "courage" because that's what it took for us to win, you know? The courage to know that, wait a minute, we've been doing certain things a certain way for so long and it does nothing, then we need to change, and it's hard for people to admit, man, I was wrong. Yes, I invested a ton of money into this and time, but I was wrong. We need to do something different.
They wouldn't say that. They would say, "Oh, it's because of that person, we didn't ..." No, the plan was flawed to begin with, right? So, when you talk about what's next, I think being courageous enough to do some self-reflection and to be able to really grasp that, number one, our systems are broken and we do not need to have broken, contaminated systems absorb this new set group of voters, right? We have an opportunity to actually shake up the status quo and to try to at least hit the reset button about getting things done in this country because we have just, my God ... We've been going down the drain and our division and fractures in our country has just been getting wider and wider and wider and there's more hate out there, there's more fear out there, and I think this little old campaign called Amendment 4, the second chances campaign, came around and showed that, man, we could win something with love instead of hate and fear, and that people can come together along the lines of humanity.
I think that we have an opportunity what next to really set a new trend, to really start to turn this cruise ship around, because you just can't turn it around in a drop of a dime but at least we could start that process. I'm looking at this campaign as being one of those influences that could start turning this ship around and shake up the status quo. What I tell people is that I work too hard and waited too long to get my voting rights back to just give it away to anybody, and what that's saying is that both sides need to now straighten up, really come out of whatever funk they've been in all these years and really find their way back to being the representatives of the people like they were originally intended to do, and not representatives of a party and not representatives of special interest, because both of those are contaminating forces.
You're talking about being a representative of people, right? And getting back to the issues that impact people and not the issues that impact parties, you know what I'm saying? I think that we have an opportunity to really start shaping, or dictating, I should say, the conversation around those things.
Marc Abizeid: Are you gonna be looking at other issues in Florida? Are you thinking about spreading the campaign to other states that have these same kinds of laws?
Desmond Meade: Well, you know, if other states want to get the secret sauce, they could always reach out to me, because it's a secret sauce. You know, hey, I mean, I tell folks all the time, I've seen so many people invest so much time and resources into things that never panned out for year after year after year after year after year. We happened to be successful. There's a secret sauce there. I've given away one of the secrets. Operate and organize around love, right? That's one of them. I can't give them all away, you know? They've got to come and talk. If they want me in the state, they have to come and talk to me, but when you talk about people asking me, "Well, Desmond, does this shake up the political landscape?" I said, "No, I think more than anything, it shakes up policy," because even with my organization, we tell folks, "Listen, we don't lean left or right. We lean straight forward and to the issues that impact people with felony convictions and their family members."
So what we're most concerned about is criminal justice reform. We're most concerned about re-entry reform, right? That, listen, we want to make sure that there's a fair, humane criminal justice system and then we also want to make sure that when people are punished, after they've completed their punishment, that they're given ever opportunity possible to successfully reintegrate back into their community because if they do so, it's better for everybody, right?
Because if I get out of jail and I can't find a job and I can't find a place to live and I can't get an education, chances are I'm gonna go back to doing the things that got me in jail the first time, and if I do that, then more than likely you might end up being my victim and while you're my victim, then you're gonna still end up ... your tax dollars is going to end up paying for me when it could've been going to educate your child, it could've been going for your healthcare, it could've been going for public safety, but now it's going towards keeping me locked up when we didn't even have to go that route by me being able ... if I was able to get a job, education, whatever.
So we are firmly committed to finding creative ways to enhance the likelihood of people successfully reentering into their community and being the part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The overwhelming majority of us, and when I'm saying us, I'm talking about people with felony convictions. That's what we're doing. We're doing that on a daily basis.
Marc Abizeid: I want to ask one more question that's related to that about coming out of prison, about ... Now you have a term you've adopted within the movement, within the coalition. "Returning citizen." Now, the thing that kind of strikes me about that term is there's an idea about a citizen, about what entails a citizen. Citizens have certain duties. Among them are voting, serving on juries, participating in power, but when you come out of prison, you find yourself not able to do any of that. Do you really feel like a citizen, like you are a returning citizen, or do you feel like it's something else, like you no longer belong?
Desmond Meade: Now we are in Florida.
Marc Abizeid: Yeah, now you are.
Desmond Meade: Now we are because once we do our time, we get the right to vote back, but let me tell you, I think it was a group out of DC, Washington, DC, that actually originated that term, returning citizen. We came up with it in Florida not because of what ... We didn't know about it before. The only reason we came up with it, because when we were trying to organize and we wanted to have these rallies, someone sent me a study that was done by someone at Florida State University in their criminology doctoral program which happens to be their criminal justice program is, I heard, one of the top programs in the world, and the study was called labeling, and basically what it said was that if you call somebody an ex-felon, convict, offender, that you increase the likelihood of them recidivating and it reminded me of when we used to hear doctors say that if you keep calling a child stupid while they're growing up, they're going to eventually do what? They're going to think that, okay, I am stupid, right?
So we were like, "Well, wait a minute. Let us try to find what kind of positive energy can we put into the atmosphere to identify people with felony convictions," and the best thing we could come up with was returning citizens, that regardless of the fact that we were stripped of the right to vote, we were citizens of our community, our state, that made mistakes and we were coming back into our community, and that's how we came up with the term "returning citizen," not knowing that someone had beat us to the punch God knows how long before, but that was our reasoning behind it, and we wanted people to speak of themselves in a positive way, and not what someone else had defined but how we define ourselves. That's why we use the term "returning citizen."
We can actually say that we are now in Florida, we are returned citizens because now, like I said, I went in and I registered to vote on January 8th, and so many other folks did. I wanted to say that even that day, that day was a celebration. It was a celebration of love because the people whose vote of love helped pass Amendment 4 showed up at the supervisor of elections office with us to experience and witness us really filling out those applications. Then there was also a celebration of expanding democracy, you know? We've always said that a more inclusive democracy is a more vibrant democracy and a more vibrant democracy is good for everybody, and so we fought just as hard for that person that wished he could've voted for Donald Trump as we did for that person that wanted to vote for Barack Obama, because everyone, every American citizen, should have the ability and the right to have their voice heard.
On January 8th, we came a long way from where we were to making that more of a reality than anything, and we're one step closer.
Marc Abizeid: Desmond, what about voter registration drives to try to get some of these 1.4 million newly re-enfranchised people registered to vote?
Desmond Meade: There are so many people that want to rush out and register people, and that's something that we're really trying to talk people through and tell them, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." You're not going to rush out there and register 1.4 million returning citizens and we don't want you to do it in a way that you think you want to do it because then we're feeling like we're targeted which now speaks to how are we ... how do we engage people? What we do know is that in the United States, there's a high level of voter apathy that's there. Yeah, we register a lot of people but then there's a ton of people that don't go out and vote, right? I believe that part of that process is because of their first interaction with voting, and their first interaction with voting is with someone registering the vote.
What I caution people against is, and I can understand that there's anxiety and there's that feeling of loss because some favorite candidates didn't win on election night and so we want to right this wrong and we want to add more people to the voting roster and get people out there to vote so we don't have to suffer this win again, but when we go about it that way, we end up reducing a person's humanity to being just a vote, right? Now you're coming to register me but I'm nobody to you. I'm just a vote. You don't even see my humanity, you know?
The thing about it is if that's my first experience as a voter, then how enthused am I gonna be? How motivated am I gonna be to go out and vote? I don't think that motivation level is gonna be that high and I think that that was something that we learned part of the lesson the hard way because the people that we've been ignoring, somebody came along and started talking to them, you know? Because they talked to them, those people showed up because there was a void that was there that was deepening and deepening over all of the years of us ignoring people and just looking people like numbers and not realizing that they're human beings with issues.
In our campaign, we did not ignore anybody. We gave an opportunity for anybody to get on board, and so we had a guy who's a Bernie person, who believes in Bernie, that couldn't vote. He was there on the ground working hard. We had a biker for Trump that couldn't vote. He was on the ground working hard for Amendment 4. When you think about it, how could we get people to not vote against their own self-interest? That's what we did. That was the question that people have been asking for years. They haven't figured that out. We figured that out, and so while there's a natural tendency to want to rush out and vote, no, I'm like, "Listen, slow down. What you want to do? You want to rush out there and register a million people and only have 100,000 of them show up to the polls? Or do you want to go out there and register 600,000 of them and have 400,000 show up to the polls?" What's more effective? You know?
I think that I want to have more people engaged because I do believe the more people that get to go and vote, the more accountable our elected officials are gonna be, the more vibrant our democracy's gonna be, and so I don't want to perpetuate a broken system, a system that's not as effective as it should be. I want to try something different, because what do we have to lose?
Marc Abizeid: That concludes our conversation with Desmond Meade who is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. We'll have a transcript of this interview available on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. There you can also find links to learn more about Desmond's work and the work of his coalition. Also be sure to check us out on social media using the institute's handle, @HaasInstitute. Thank you for listening.