Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said he was feeling “positive” as he spoke to Colorlines on March 17. It was a huge day for him personally because 1.4 million people Florida would finally have the right to vote in the presidential primary thanks to The Voting Restoration Amendment, also knows as Amendment 4, spearheaded by Meade. As a formerly incarcerated criminal justice activist who earned a law degree and has committed his life to giving power back to the people, Meade says his movement is just getting started.
We know you couldn’t have predicted the threat we’re all facing during this global pandemic, but are you feeling hopeful about voter turnout in Florida for the primary?
That is really hard to gauge. But I am leaning more on the positive side because ever since we passed Amendment 4, what I have been noticing is that there has been a level of excitement among returning citizens about voting that I don’t even see in regular people.
The Florida state legislature passed a poll tax to limit the Voting Restoration Amendment’s reach. This was clearly a roadblock put in place to discourage people from voting and to add confusion and fear into the mix. How did you address that setback and push forward in your mission?
From the very beginning we told people that where other people see obstacles, we see opportunities. We let folks know that we are going to let the legislators legislate and we’ll let the litigators litigate. And what we are gonna continue to do is remain keenly focused on the people. We started a court program because in the legislation, no matter what a person owes the courts are allowed to waive those fines and court fees through sentence modification, allowing those people to vote.
For plan B we started a crowdsource funding campaign to raise money to actually help people pay off fines and fees. We have raised over half a million dollars and are looking to raise a lot more to help people so that they can register to vote. In October of last year, we brought John Legend down and he hung out with us for a day and he met some returning citizens. He went down with them to the courthouse and stood with them as they got their sentence modified and they were able to register to vote right then and there. We are constantly pushing that. We also have a texting program as well as a 1-877 number that we encourage people to call if they have any questions or concerns, or if they want to register to vote or need help with their fines and fees. We are committed to working with every last of the 1.4 million returning citizens every step of the way.
How will the Voting Restoration Amendment impact the November election?
If I had a crystal ball I would say that this movement would actually be the deciding factor in who becomes president of the U.S. And what’s even greater than that is the importance of local politics. I don’t just see the presidential election as a target, what I see is how this movement is gonna impact judicial races. Judges in the state of Florida, criminal court judges, are elected by the people. This movement is going to impact sheriff races because the majority of sheriffs in Florida are elected. Those are like the entryways into the criminal justice system. We know there are way more people incarcerated in state prisons and jails than in federal prisons. And so the biggest bang for our cause is how we impact these local races. And I see a significant impact because not only are returning citizens going to go out and vote, but they are taking their friends and family with them to go vote.
What challenges do you face as you work to spread your message?
The challenge is that a lot of the folks I want to reach are individuals that are influencers, particularly in the hip-hop community, because those influencers might be connected to the folks we really need to reach—folks that might not read The Washington Post or The New York Times. We have been using a lot of social media as an apparatus, and I can tell you that through social media we have engaged over 20 thousand returning citizens who have started the voter registration process. But we still have a long way to go.
Do you think your movement is making political adversaries nervous?
I think people on both sides are worried. People who have not given proper attention to criminal justice reform, people who have discarded the voices of people with felony convictions and their family members and turned a blind eye to how we have been engaging or enacting policies that have been separating and destroying families, I think they are nervous because for the first time they cannot get away with this tough-on-crime rhetoric. And now folks are understanding that it’s coming to a time where they are gonna have to be accountable for the policies that they have enacted. They are gonna have to be accountable for contributing to the tough-on-crime rhetoric that did nothing to make our communities better, and all it did was lock up more bodies.
What keeps you going in your fight?
I am a person of faith. I could look at the story of David, how God used David to beat Goliath. So I know that it’s not the smartest, it’s not the strongest that are gonna bring about change. It’s gonna be the people that are suffering and experiencing that pain who are going to do it. It’s not just about voting. It’s also about a lot of these issues in criminal justice or the economic issues that impact communities of color. The people who are actually going to change those conditions are the people who were actually ostracized.