Restore Him: Desmond Meade Takes Voting Rights Fight To Congress
Advocate for ex-felons makes case for national rights restoration measure
Florida law student Desmond Meade wouldn’t call himself a civil rights activist, per se.
He says what he does, as a long-standing president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is something more similar to helping a temporarily misplaced individual find his or her family.
“If I have a son and he’s done something wrong, I would punish my son,” Meade said, in a phone interview with Loop 21. “But he doesn’t stop being a Meade because he’s done something wrong. He’s still going to be a part of the Meade family.”
Meade is speaking metaphorically about the American family. It’s on behalf of the disfranchised members of that family that Meade has traveled to Washington, where he and a distinguished panel of advocates will, on Wednesday, urge members of Congress and the public to support the Democracy Restoration Act.
The proposed law would make regaining civil rights a much simpler process for millions of the nation’s ex-felons, who contend with a wide array of state policies that make casting election ballots after prison an arduous journey.
They have, as Meade put it, paid their debts but aren’t allowed to return to the family.
“What felon disfranchisement says is, because you make a mistake, you are no longer a part of our family,” Meade said. “And now you’ve been relegated to a second class citizenship status.”
In the most intimate way, Meade knows what that means.
Beginning in his teenage years, Meade struggled with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and was homeless for nearly a decade because of it. His last criminal charge, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, got him 15 years in state prison.
Without a substantial reduction in his sentence, the 45-year-old Meade would still be in prison today and not in his second year of law school at Florida International University. He has served his time, but isn’t yet part of “the family.”
“My thing is, I’m just like you,” Meade said. “I made a mistake. I’ve paid for my mistake. Let me back in the family. I didn’t stop being an American because I made a mistake. And if I’m still an American, then I should still have that right to vote.”
In Florida, it’s particularly hard for ex-felons, or “returning citizens,” as Meade prefers to identify them, to regain their civil rights. Last year, Florida governor Rick Scott reversed a policy, set by a former governor, that allowed nonviolent felons to apply for restoration immediately after leaving prison. In fact, Scott has imposed a waiting period that is nearly two election cycles long.
Critics have called the move eerily similar to Jim Crow-era poll taxes, which historically have a disproportionate effect on African Americans and Latinos.
“They didn’t have to extend the waiting period, but they chose to do so,” Meade said. “All it’s done, just like the voter ID laws have done, is discourage an individual to get their rights back or to participate in this voting process."
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Civil rights advocates have not been shy about decrying the impact a spur in voter suppression laws will have on the fall elections. The laws, many which curiously emerged after the election of President Barack Obama, are being revised to make voting as arduous of a task for non-felons as it is for ex-felons.
Meade does not mince words in characterizing the law.
“They want to stem the flow of African Americans to the polls,” he said. “They are really hitting us from both sides with the felon disfranchisement policies and the voter ID laws.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which will join Meade on Capitol Hill Wednesday, has estimated that there are 5 million ex-felons without the right to vote. Of them, 1.4 million are African American.
Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan are leading the charge on Capitol Hill, with the Democracy Restoration Act.
But there are hurdles to this type of law, Meade says. Politicians, particularly those facing an election, don't want to appear soft on crime against their opponents. To win hearts and mind, Meade says, people need to make the connection between a person’s right to vote and the plethora of choices one will make in lifetime.
“You have a choice,” he said. “As a society we have a choice. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate me, or you can spend a fraction of that to rehabilitate me."
Moreover, Meade believes that restoring his and others’ right to vote should be an immediate part of that rehabilitation.
"When someone is asked which Desmond they would rather have, the Desmond that is locked up that they have to pay to keep there, or the Desmond that is in law school and giving back to the community, I’m pretty sure they’d rather have this Desmond," he said.
It's safe to say they'd also like the Desmond that has the right to vote again.