MIAMI, FLORIDA — Sheena Meade is campaigning to be the youngest African-American woman to ever represent Central Florida in the state legislature, and her husband Desmond Meade couldn’t be prouder.
“I know she would be a great public servant,” he told ThinkProgress, smoothing his tie over his belly and beaming.
He has spent the last few months talking up her candidacy to friends and community members, phone-banking, and helping out the campaign office with minor tasks. But Desmond, a lifelong Floridian, can’t cast a vote for his own wife. That’s because he has a felony conviction from more than a decade ago.
He is one of more than 1.5 million people in Florida alone permanently barred from voting, running for office, or serving on a jury due to a criminal record.
“In 2008, it hurt not to be able to be a part of a historic election, but I have even more pain now because I can’t even vote for my own wife,” Meade said. “It’s un-American and totally unfair. I should have that right.”
Created after the Civil War specifically to keep black residents from gaining political power, the policy lives on today, disenfranchising nearly one in four African Americans like Meade. Only Virginia and Kentucky have a similar policy, while every other state automatically restores these civil rights to former felons after varying periods of time.
Now, as the presidential primary descends upon his state, Meade is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to allow most Floridians with felony records to automatically have their voting rights restored after completing their prison sentence, parole and probation. Only those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses such as rape or child molestation would be excluded, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimates that more than 1 million residents could regain their rights.
Meade said he hopes that one day all former prisoners, even those convicted of the most egregious crimes, can automatically have their voting rights restored.
“If people are released back into society, they should be given every opportunity to successfully reintegrate into their communities,” he said. “But at this time, the language indicates what most voters will support.”
As of March, Meade and the other members of the coalition were more than two-thirds of the way toward gathering the roughly 68,000 signatures needed to force the state Supreme Court to consider putting the measure to Florida voters in 2018.
Crossing the tracks
When ThinkProgress asked Meade how he came to lead the rights restoration campaign, he thought back to the lowest point in his life. It was the early 2000s, he was newly released from prison and struggling with a drug addiction, and he attempted suicide.
“I was standing on the tracks waiting for the train to come. I thought there was no future for me, and I just wanted to end my life. But the train didn’t come.”
A long downward spiral had brought Meade to those tracks, beginning with dismissal from the military for stealing alcohol while he was stationed in Hawaii. Back in Florida he became addicted to drugs, and was convicted both for possession and for aggravated battery. During this time, his mother died and he lost his family home to foreclosure. He was finally sentenced to 15 years in prison for possession of a gun as a felon, but only served three years of the sentence before being released back onto the streets.
After hitting rock bottom, Meade entered a drug treatment program and found stability in a homeless shelter. While living there, went back to college and eventually earned a law degree from Florida International University. He became further inspired to turn his life around when he heard the news that civil rights icon Rosa Parks had passed away.
“I saw the amount of people who were touched by her life,” he said. “That motivated me to do something to touch other people’s lives.” As he began to volunteer with other Floridians returning from prison, he learned about the state’s restrictive felon disenfranchisement laws. Though most ex-felons in the U.S. have their voting rights restored automatically after a period of time, Florida is one of three states where returning citizens are permanently denied the right to vote unless they individually petition the governor to win their rights back.
After years of advocacy by Meade and other members of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, then-Governor Charlie Christ ordered his clemency board in 2007 to begin automatically restoring the rights of most ex-offenders who had fully paid their debt to society. But a Tea Party groundswell put Governor Rick Scott in office in 2010. Scott rolled those changes back, which Meade said felt like a “dagger in his heart.”
Since then, only a small handful of citizens have had their voting rights restored, while 11,000 people who have applied are still waiting for an answer.
A similar story recently played out in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of 140,000 ex-offenders, only to see his Republican successor sign his own order stripping those rights away.
Meade said what played out in Florida and Kentucky taught him a painful but important lesson. “We should not depend on the whim of an administration,” he said. “We should not spend too much energy on something that can be undone with a single signature.”
Now, Meade and other advocates are focusing their efforts on a permanent amendment to the state’s constitution, one that a future governor won’t easily be able to overturn.
An “arduous process”
Currently, Floridians seeking to get their voting rights restored after fully serving a felony sentence have to do the following: wait between five and seven years, obtain court documents for every charge they have ever been convicted of in any jurisdiction, and answer a series of questions Meade calls “extremely intrusive” about their own and their family members’ income, drinking habits, and other details. Any legal infraction, even a speeding ticket, can tank an applicant’s chances.
If the applicants are lucky enough to get a hearing before the Clemency Board, which only holds such hearings four times a year, they have to travel to the state capitol in Tallahassee, which is hundreds of miles away for many Floridians. If an applicant can’t afford to take time off work to make the hearing or can’t afford transportation, it counts against his or her case. Applicants who do make it to their hearing are given five minutes to tell the governor and Clemency Board why they should get their rights back. If the Board deems their reasons not compelling enough, they could return empty-handed.
“The process you have to go through is almost identical to the one you go through when asking for a pardon,” explained Meade. “It’s insulting that as an American citizen I basically have to beg to be a citizen again.”
Meade did attempt to go through the process several years ago, and was denied. Instead of applying again and waiting potentially several more years for a hearing, he is putting his energy into the 2018 ballot initiative to restore more than a million Floridians’ rights along with his own.
A Confederate legacy
Late last year, Howard Simon with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida was proud to see his state remove the Confederate battle flag from its official seal. He was pleased that just last week, Gov. Scott signed a bill to remove a statue of a Confederate general from the U.S. Capitol’s statuary hall.
But as he has watched Florida and other states across the South remove the symbols of their slave-owning past, he has become frustrated that people haven’t mobilized in the same way against Confederate-era laws like the one that bars Meade from casting a ballot.
“When Florida was forced to rejoin the Union after the Civil War, they had to extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed slaves,” Simon explained. “This presented a major problem for the state’s leaders, because there were more freed slaves than white people in many parts of the state. So they had to come up with some system to take the right to vote away from as many black people as possible, and they settled on these felon disenfranchisement laws. And that’s still the purpose of the system today.”
In 1868, Florida held a constitutional convention, where legislators like William J. Purman argued that laws stripping felons of the right to vote would keep the state from becoming “niggerized.” After ratifying this constitution, the state proceeded to develop “Black Codes” — laws specifically regulating the behavior of African-American citizens, and had law enforcement target black communities.
Two years ago, Simon and other Florida advocates traveled to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva to testify about this policy, which he calls a “Civil War-era relic.” The Commission later issued a report calling out the state for making it “lengthy and cumbersome” for residents to restore their voting rights, and urging the state government to change it.
“It’s become a major international scandal that we can’t outgrow the heritage of the Confederacy,” Simon told ThinkProgress. “I mean, it’s great that people are addressing the symbols of the Confederacy. But this is a policy from the Confederacy that continues to apply and restricts the rights of people. Let’s roll up our sleeves and deal with the harder work of changing policies, not just addressing the symbols.”
While Florida leads the country in the number of people barred from voting by a criminal record, 6 million people across the U.S. are disenfranchised by similar polices. It is no accident that Africans Americans are disproportionately represented in this group, and that most of those impacted live in former Confederate states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida. With voting eligibility left up to state governments, the U.S. has developed an arbitrary patchwork of laws. Someone serving a felony sentence in Maine can cast a ballot from prison, yet Florida residents like Meade are barred for life unless their individual petition to the governor is granted.
“It’s like a slap in the face when I hear that in Puerto Rico, prisoners are participating in the primaries, yet in Florida we can’t have a say,” he told ThinkProgress. “It just doesn’t make sense, because most of the people who are incarcerated are eventually going to be released. It is in the public’s interest to ensure that they have a successful transition back into their community. If you make it hard for people to reintegrate, you are increasing the likelihood of them committing another offense.”
After tracking the tens of thousands of prisoners released between 2007 and 2011, the Florida Parole Commission found that ex-felons who had their voting rights restored were much less likely to commit another crime. Yet the state’s prison population has more than tripled in the past few decades, while the number of people approved by the governor to regain voting rights has slowed to a trickle.
Silence from the candidates
In back-to-back Democratic and Republican debates in Miami, no candidate or moderator brought up the state’s felon disenfranchisement law or the campaign to amend it. Speeches by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Marco Rubio in cities across the Sunshine State similarly avoided the topic.
Meade said he was disappointed that the candidates were not showing more concern for the more than 1 million Floridians who want to participate in the state’s primary.
“I know that this is a state issue and that the next president will have limited power on this, but they can bring the power of their voices to the situation,” he said. “The candidates need to help us bring more attention and pressure to have these policies changed.”