In Florida, a Historic Victory for Voting Rights (ep. 21)

November 7, 2018
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The midterm elections made a lot of news, but one result particularly stands out: Florida's vote on Amendment 4. In a historic change, Floridians voted to amend their state constitution to restore voting rights to most people convicted of felonies once they've completed their full sentences. It sailed over the 60 percent threshold it needed to pass. The passage of Amendment 4 marks the largest single expansion of voting rights since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In a state where one of 10 adults couldn’t vote, 1.4 million Floridians will now be able to reclaim their place in civic life.

To mark the occasion, we’re replaying an earlier episode of At Liberty, which explores the history of felony disenfranchisement and features Desmond Meade, one of the leaders of this historic effort.

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LEE
[00:00] I’m Lee Rowland. From the ACLU, welcome to: At Liberty, the podcast where we discuss the most pressing civil rights and civil liberties topics of our time. Today, voting rights in the midterms.

[00:22] The midterm elections are over, and will likely be remembered for high turnout and the end of one-party control of Congress. But one particular result stands out: Florida's ballot question number 4. In a historic change, Floridians voted to amend their state constitution to restore voting rights to most people convicted of felonies once they've completed their full sentences. As a constitutional amendment, Question 4 needed over 60% of Florida's vote to pass. And it sailed over that high margin.

[00:53] It's hard to overstate just how consequential this result is. In fact, it marks the largest single expansion of voting rights since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.

[01:06] Until yesterday, Florida was one of the few states where residents who committed a single felony were disenfranchised for life. That means that before last night, one in 10 adults in the state couldn’t vote. Close to one in three Black men couldn't vote. The passage of Amendment 4 has given the right to vote back to over 1.4 million Floridians who will now be able to reclaim their place in civic life.

[01:35] To mark the occasion, we’re replaying an earlier episode of At Liberty, where we explored the history of felony disenfranchisement and spoke with one of the leaders of this historic effort in Florida - Desmond Meade.

[older episode begins]

LEE
[01:49] The 14th amendment to the United States Constitution is perhaps most famous for promising equal protection of the law to everyone in America. It was passed right after the Civil War and it ended legal slavery in the United States. It also grants citizens the right to vote. But, not every citizen gets that right. Right now, millions of Americans aren't allowed to vote because they have a felony criminal record. That’s called called felony disenfranchisement, and because a huge number of Americans go through the criminal justice system, it affects a lot of people. Different states have different rules about it. Of all the states, Florida's might be the harshest. 1.6 million Floridians are deprived of their right to vote. One of those people is Desmond Meade, one of the leading voices behind a ballot measure this year that will allow Floridians to weigh in on felony disenfranchisement. But first, we’re talking to this guy.

DALE HO
[03:03] I’m Dale Ho, I’m the director of the ACLU voting rights project.

LEE (NARRATION)
[03:08] We brought Dale in to help us understand the history and scope of voter disenfranchisement, and why, despite that history, he thinks we’re making progress on this particular issue.

LEE
[03:17] So Dale, what does the word “disenfranchisement” actually mean?

DALE
[03:21] It just means having your voting rights taken away from you. The term “felony disenfranchisement” means if you’ve been convicted of a felony, you are going to lose your voting rights in most states, for some period of time, and some states, forever.

LEE
[03:33] Why do states get to decide that? Where does the states’ power come from to create this kind of disenfranchisement rule?

DALE
[03:43] Well, at a very basic level, the states themselves are each empowered by the Constitution to set their own qualifications for voting. The 14th Amendment to the U.S.Constitution also references felony disenfranchisement and is often cited as a source of state authority to remove people’s voting rights on that basis.

LEE (NARRATION)
[04:04] Brief U.S. history refresher: After the Civil War, America had a period called Reconstruction. Congress passed three new amendments to the Constitution - the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Together, they’re called the "Reconstruction Amendments." The 14th Amendment — the one Dale just cited — promises everyone in America equal protection under the law, including former slaves. States that had allowed slavery had to support the Reconstruction Amendments if they wanted to rejoin Congress after the war.

LEE
[04:37] But, as Dale mentioned, in addition to equal protection, the 14th amendment also specifically allows felony disenfranchisement… which has always just felt off to me.

LEE
[04:48] I’m also a lawyer -- often, when I hear about the 14th Amendment, it’s because that amendment has language in it promising equal protection under the laws. How can felony disenfranchisement as a concept actually appear in the very same Constitutional amendment where we promise people we’ll treat them equally?

DALE
[05:06] It’s a little strange, but it’s also not that strange on one level. In some ways, the 14th Amendment is there to guarantee the equal rights of citizenship to people who were formerly enslaved. And it also, in some ways, sets up a contrast. They’re going to have rights, but, of course, people who commit crimes can still be subject to certain penalties, like having their voting rights removed from them.

DALE
[05:31] I mean, the 14th Amendment does embody our nation’s ideals about, I think, about, equality and fair treatment for all people, regardless of who you are. The framers of the Reconstruction Amendments, although they had very deep commitments to ideals of equality, had very specific views about voting, which don’t really comport with a modern sensibility about what equality actually requires. So, it’s not just felony disenfranchisement, but also the framers of the Reconstruction Amendments, you know, generally didn’t have problems with poll taxes, generally didn’t have problems with literacy tests.

LEE
[06:06] Can you bring us to today? What do felony disenfranchisement laws look like across the country, give us a current snapshot.

DALE
[06:14] Sure. So the current snapshot of the laws is this: there are 6.1 million people in this country who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction. That’s a lot of people. More people than in the state of Wisconsin.

LEE
[06:30] Wow.

DALE
[06:31] So, it has a very, very significant effect on our democracy in terms of excluding millions of otherwise eligible Americans from participating.

DALE
[06:40] There are also huge racial disparities. About 2% of Americans overall can’t vote because of a felony conviction. For African-Americans, it’s closer to 8%. So African-Americans nationwide suffer disenfranchisement around four times that of Americans as a whole.

LEE
[06:57] Do you see the arc and history of felon disenfranchisement in part or in whole as a story about race?

DALE
[07:05] In this country that’s largely the case, these laws weren’t as widespread and they weren’t as severe until after the Civil War, after Reconstruction, after voting rights had been granted to African American men, that you see these laws kind of sprouting up like mushrooms and in more severe forms, and in also very strange forms that really, I think, make clear how they were targeted specifically at African-Americans.

DALE
[07:34] So, in Mississippi for example, the list of crimes for which you could be disenfranchised was specifically tailored to those offenses that were thought to be committed more frequently by former slaves.

DALE
[07:47] So, just one example. Larceny was an offense that was disenfranchising; larceny, you can’t vote for the rest of your life.

LEE
[07:53] And, what’s larceny? Just so that we know what that is.

DALE
[07:55] Larceny is when you steal something. Homicide -- murder -- non-disenfranchising offense. So, if you go to someone else’s farm and you kill the farmer, you can vote tomorrow! But if you go to someone else’s farm and steal someone’s chicken, you can’t vote.

DALE
[08:10] We have this very packed understanding of voting rights in this country that at the founding it was rich, white men who could vote and then slowly over time the laws just get more and more liberal. In terms of the overall arc, that’s true.

DALE
[08:25] That very simplistic story misses a lot of the progress, followed by retrenchment, followed by progress, followed by retrenchment. I mean, at the founding, women who met the property requirement could vote in New Jersey, African-Americans who were free and also met the requirements could vote in a number of states, including North Carolina which was a slave state, which is pretty remarkable, if you think about that.

LEE
[08:47] It is.

DALE
[08:48] That progress got wiped away. After the Civil War there was some progress, and then that got wiped away with poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement and literacy tests. With the Voting Rights Act in 1965, we had about a fifty year period of expansion of voting rights, but really starting after the election of Barack Obama, we started to see a big, big push back.

DALE
[09:09] And there’ve been countless lawsuits and battles over new restrictions on voting. Things like new requirements for registration, new kinds of ID that are required at the polls, the limitations on when and where you can vote, more and more fights about redistricting. There’s been a big push to actually make voting easier, sort of offensive push to the new restrictions on voting.

DALE
[09:35] And now, felony disenfranchisement is getting tossed into the mix. What I think is really interesting is that felony disenfranchisement is this thing that’s existed for well over a century as something that’s contested. There actually feels like a lot more consensus on felony disenfranchisement than all the other issues I talked about. On this issue that was so controversial ten years ago, today there is, now that there’s a bipartisan consensus about the need for criminal justice reform, a sense that punishments have to end at some point.

DALE
[10:14]That people shouldn’t be excommunicated for life, that people should return to society and we need to do the best that we can to reintegrate folks into society, including giving them a stake in civil society, which means having a right to vote.

LEE
[10:28] This may be a surreal question to ask of someone who’s spent his life protecting voting rights and expanding the franchise, but why is it important to have people with criminal convictions participating in elections?

DALE
[10:45] That kinda begs big questions about why do we have elections and why do elections matter. I mean, some people think that we only want the “best” voters participating, however they define “best.”

LEE
[10:58] Only the “best” people.

DALE
[11:02] You know, there is one theory that what an election is supposed to do is to get the best people together to sort of to make some decisions and choose from among them who’s going to lead, and it’s the same kind of thing that gave us thinking that gave us, like, poll taxes and literacy tests, right?

DALE
[11:17] We want to exclude certain people from society, people who aren’t qualified to be making these decisions. That’s one idea behind elections, and you can see how felony disenfranchisement might sit kind of comfortably in that conception of what it is that we’re trying to do. A different conception of what we’re trying to do in elections is figure out, what does the majority want? Because, if you believe that the legitimacy of our government is derived from the will of the majority, then we need to have elections to try and learn what it is the majority wants. We also want to make sure every segment of society is represented in that so that our process takes different points of views into account and then helps us arrive at the best policy judgments.

DALE
[12:02] And when it comes to people with criminal convictions, they’re still citizens. They’re still Americans. They deserve to participate in our decision-making process. And, in fact, you might go so far as to think that if criminal justice policy is an issue that we need to debate and have informed policy making about, then we are doing ourselves a disservice if we exclude the very people who have felt the brunt of our criminal justice system. We can’t have an informed debate about that system, the costs and benefits of it, if we don’t include the voices of the folks who have been subjected to it.

LEE
[12:45] There are three states that are the worst of the worst. What are those three states?

DALE
[12:49] Iowa, Kentucky and Florida are states where if you commit a single felony offense you are banned from voting for life. Any felony, and you’re done.

LEE
[13:01] And felonies can touch some pretty non-violent conduct that we may not think of as being the kind of crime you would be ex-communicated from society for, right?

DALE
[13:11] I think, if I remember correctly, in Florida, I think if you steal $300 worth of property that can be a felony. You could potentially lose your voting rights for the rest of your life.

LEE
[13:23] How does Florida compare to other states in its voter disenfranchisement rules?

DALE
[13:30] Florida is by far the worst state. I mentioned earlier that 6.1 million Americans can’t vote because of a criminal conviction. Over a quarter of those people live in a single state: Florida. 1.6 million people in Florida can’t vote. And, you know, from our perspective, electoral outcomes aren’t really the issue here. The issue is whether or not every member of our society can participate in electing our leaders and participate in our civic discourse.

DALE
[14:03] But I will say that Florida is a state that is always contested electorally between the two parties, and if you think about it, having 1.6 million people unable to vote in that state is a significant thing.

MUSIC

LEE (NARRATION)
[14:24] If any of those 1.6 million people get their voting rights back, it’ll have a lot to do with Desmond Meade and his organization's work to restore the right to vote for some of those living with felony convictions.

LEE
[14:37] Desmond can you tell us about the ballot initiative up for vote in Florida this year?

DESMOND MEADE
[14:45] What the amendment basically says is that it would restore the ability to vote to individuals who have completely served all portions of their sentence, to include parole and probation. However, it would not apply to individuals who are convicted of murder or individuals who are convicted of felony sexual offenses. And, we set out throughout the state of Florida collecting petitions.

DESMOND
[15:11] We were able to collect, eventually collect, around 80,000 signatures, which was enough to trigger what we called the Legal Review Process. Last, I believe, May, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that we complied with all Constitutional requirements and we were given the green light to continue collecting petitions and see if we could get it on the ballot for 2018. We made a commitment that in five months we were going to collect a million petitions and we did.

DESMOND
[15:45] And we made the ballot for November of 2018. Ballot Position #4. So, we are now officially Constitutional Amendment #4.

LEE
[15:56] So, Floridians are gonna get the chance to weigh in on the automatic restoration of voting rights after people have served their time.

LEE
[16:03] What have you learned about felon disenfranchisement in Florida, either it’s history or its present?

DESMOND
[16:13] So there’s… dealing with this issue is really complex. I mean on the surface, you know, it’s very easy to talk about the historical aspect of it. Particularly in the United States during the Jim Crow Era.

DESMOND
[16:27] But, I think that there’s a much deeper aspect of felon disenfranchisement, especially when you talk about the impact it has and who it’s impacting today. And, how we can change these policies here in the state of Florida.

LEE
[16:44] Who is impacted? Who do you meet in your work? What does the average person who’s lost their voting rights look like?

DESMOND
[ 16:57] Well, that’s a great question, because the average person in Florida who’ve lost their voting rights does not look like me. They’re not African-American. In Florida when you look at the people who are impacted by this policy, what you will find is that African Americans only account for a third.

DESMOND
[17:19] And that’s part of the challenge of dealing with this issue because we know what the historical roots of this issue are. We know that this was used to prevent newly freed slaves from voting but the thing is is that, this is like a tumor. It may have originated in one part of the body, but because it’s been left unchecked, it’s spread throughout the body and it’s infected many other parts.

DESMOND
[17:53] What is happening is that most of our narrative has been about the disproportionate impact it has on the African American community, it has created a narrative that would make people naturally assume that this is only an African American issue, or it’s only African Americans that are impacted by this particular policy and in reality, the opposite is true. And that is, there are more people who are white, there are more people who are not African American, that are impacted.

LEE
[18:22] What’s your elevator pitch to Floridians as you go around the state advocating for the ballot initiative, about why they should care about letting people with criminal convictions vote? Especially people who themselves may have no experience with the criminal justice system?

DESMOND
[18:41] I don’t know if you call it an elevator pitch but one of the things I do---and I ask folks, you know, would you like to never be forgiven for anything you’ve done in your life? I think at the end of the day, this thing is about forgiveness, it’s about redemption and restoration, it’s about, you know, that once a debt is paid it’s paid.

DESMOND
[19:04] The only problem that occurs is when people or folks try to politicize this issue. But it’s not as political as it may seem on the surface, it really isn’t. At the end of the day this country is about, you know, American citizens being able to have the opportunity to have their voices heard in spite of their viewpoint.

DESMOND
[19:25] So I don’t care if you vote left or vote right---it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that you have an opportunity as a citizen to vote, and if I’m willing to silence you because I think you’re not gonna vote like how I want you to vote, then we’re not talking about a democracy anymore. We’re talking about a dictatorship.

LEE (NARRATION)
[19:47] For Desmond, it’s personal. He hasn’t been able to vote in Florida, the state where he grew up and still calls home. He graduated from high school in Miami, then joined the military as a helicopter repairman. But during his second enlistment, he got addicted to drugs, and was kicked out of the military.

DESMOND
[12:07] But, I still had an addiction. I just sunk. I really just delved deeper into using drugs. Getting my drug of choice and using it was priority. And that meant being willing to do whatever.

DESMOND
[20:25] The first interactions, of course, with the criminal justice system, more than likely was with me being in possession of, maybe marijuana, cocaine, you know, some type of illegal drug, and getting introduced to the criminal justice system where the majority of cases are plea bargained out.

DESMOND
[20:48] I pled guilty in order to expedite my case and to get back out, and so that’s what I did.

LEE
[20:55] In FL, a felony has consequence of losing voting rights. When you were talking to your attorneys, when you were in a hurry to get back on the streets and use, were you aware that it meant you might not be able to vote again?

DESMOND
[21:13] Those type of discussions was not prevalent during the time that I was going through the criminal justice system. And, as a person whose an addict, you just want to get out, you want to get back out to the streets so you can continue using your drugs.

DESMOND
[21:32] At the time I was homeless, of course, and still had the drug problem and I didn’t see any need to keep going on in my life, I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, and I wasn’t happy with my life.

DESMOND
[21:46] I found myself standing in front of railroad tracks waiting on a train to come so I could jump in front of it. Fortunately the train didn’t come that day, and I crossed the tracks and I checked myself into drug treatment, I moved into a homeless shelter, and I enrolled in one of the local colleges, and the rest is history.

That was the beginning of a new beginning in my life.

LEE (NARRATION)
[22:16] Desmond went to law school, and passed the bar. He got married to another politically active Floridian. His wife ran for a seat in Florida House in 2016. That’s when Desmond started really feeling the sting of his own felony disenfranchisement.

LEE
[22:34] How did you come to realize you couldn’t vote for her? Was there a moment where your wife came to you and you guys had that talk, “I’m not gonna be able to cast a ballot for you?”

DESMOND
[22:44] Well, no, it wasn’t that dramatic because here’s the deal, I’ve been advocating for the restoration of civil rights since 2006, and so I was very much aware that in Florida once you’re convicted of a felony, you lose your civil rights, and one of those rights do include voting.

DESMOND
[23:04] I knew that, but in spite of all the years I’ve been advocating around this issue, it never really hit home for me until my wife ran for office. And someone approached me and asked me if I was excited that I would have an opportunity to vote for my wife, that’s when it kinda hit me like a ton of bricks, just like a slap in the face. I just got mad that, in spite of what I’ve been able to overcome, I can’t even vote for my wife.

DESMOND
[23:25] When we talk about voting, there’s no other quality that speaks more to citizenship than the ability to go into a voting booth and cast a ballot. And when you talk about the cornerstone of democracy, we know that the ability to vote and the power to decide which Americans get to vote and which don’t get to vote, should never be left in the hands of a politician.

DESMOND
[24:03] No matter what their political preferences; whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, or whatever. Voting is so sacred. We wouldn’t want politicians to make that determination because partisan politics can play a role in that. And so because of that and other reasons, we decided, why don’t we just take that power out of the hands of politicians and put it in the Constitution?

[24:30] To make sure as many Americans as possible are able to have the ability to vote once they serve their time.

LEE
[24:40] Desmond, as you were talking, you keep mentioning the concepts of forgiveness, including for things in our past. And, you aren’t just talking about this on an abstract level, you go around the state talking about your own story. Even just today, we’ve talked about your drug addiction and homelessness, and my god, a day when you contemplated suicide on those tracks. That’s a lot to lay bare for people. You really put your whole self out there doing this advocacy. I can only imagine that’s incredibly difficult. Why are you so open about your own past, your own struggles, and your own journey to activism?

DESMOND
[25:23] I think a perfect answer just came to me! You know why I’m so open? Because, it’s in the openness that the negative becomes the positive. So, the things that I used to be ashamed of, the things that caused me to get to those railroad tracks and want to end my life, because I’m open with it, those things now are actually being used to create positive energy. To give other people hope.

DESMOND
[25:50] Our community is just like a chain, a chain can only be as strong as its weakest link, and so is our country. If our country is to be great, we have to empower those weakest among us. So, me telling my story provides whatever fuel is needed for the people who are weak to know that they can overcome, and for the people who are strong to know that there is an obligation for them to reach back and to advocate on behalf of people who can’t advocate themselves.

DALE
[26:24] I really do think that what’s happening in Florida is huge. You know, these laws are getting more liberal on a national level, that’s the trend, but so many people are swept up in it and that’s largely because of a few states, like Florida, which are stuck in the mud. Florida not only has the worst law, but it’s a huge state, so it has the most disenfranchised people of any state in the country. If Florida moves, then I really think the rest of the states could fall like dominoes after that. It’s that significant.

LEE
[27:09] Thanks for listening to At Liberty. Make sure to subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts.

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