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The Rocky Road Towards Restoring Voting Rights To Florida Felons


Florida was supposed to see hundreds of thousands of formerly banned voters at the polls this election. Two years ago, voters there approved restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions, nearly a million and a half of them. But Republicans in the state legislature hobbled the initiative by requiring anyone with a felony conviction to completely pay off their fines before casting any ballots. Our next guest, Desmond Meade, calls that a poll tax. He's the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and he joins us now. Welcome.

DESMOND MEADE: Lulu, how you doing this morning?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm doing very well. How are you?

MEADE: I can't complain too much. You know, it's been very busy. However...


MEADE: ...You know, I'm enjoying this work more and more each day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about your work, but let's start with your journey. You know what it's like firsthand to have your vote restricted.

MEADE: Oh, yes. You know, I - you know, I think last month was the first time that I voted in over 30 years. I was a person that suffered through substance abuse. And I've been, you know, convicted of felony offenses before. I've served time in jail and in prison.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it feel when you cast that vote?

MEADE: It was an amazing feeling. Voting is more than just valuable. It's sacred. It says that I am. It says that I'm an American citizen. It says that my voice matters, and it counts. And so many people who have put their lives on the line and my ancestors who were hung on trees and burned and bitten by dogs and - they went through all of that just so I could have that moment that I had last month.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You worked on getting that 2018 law passed. It's been a long road, but here we are in 2020. How many people in Florida could vote but haven't paid off their fees after the legislature did what they did?

MEADE: Well, let me tell you when we passed Amendment 4, we cleared the pathway for 1.4 million returning citizens to be able to vote again without having to grovel at the feet of any politician. Unfortunately, because of the legislation that was passed, you know, about 774,000 have some type of outstanding legal financial obligations that they have to satisfy before being able to register to vote. However, that still leaves anywhere between 500,000 to 600,000 returning citizens that can register immediately, and some of them have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You call this, though, a poll tax. Can you explain why?

MEADE: Well, let me tell you I changed - I've changed my approach on that. I think it goes beyond the poll tax. I think it's a clear affront against democracy, forcing an American citizen to choose between putting food on their table or voting. To me, that is not what democracy is all about. Access to the ballot box should be unencumbered and free. And any attempt to minimize that or to discourage that is an affront to democracy and what this country stands for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that Amendment 4 - that 2018 initiative - will have an impact on the results of the election next month?

MEADE: Oh, most definitely it will. And let me be clear - Amendment 4 accomplished what it set out to do, and no amount of legislation will stop that. You know, prior to Amendment 4 passing, American citizens living in Florida lost the right to vote for life if they were ever convicted of a felony offense. And so Amendment 4 created that alternative pathway. And so that still remains true today. You know, we see about maybe half of the people that have outstanding fines and fees. But, you know, we always look at obstacles as opportunities, and that's exactly how we've approached this situation. And we've raised over $25 million to help people pay off their fines and fees, so they can participate in democracy. We estimate that over 40,000 people were helped through this program. And in addition, there's so many returning citizens that have registered to vote on their own because they didn't have these obstacles. And so we are very confident that, you know, returning citizens - people who've benefited from Amendment 4 will have a significant impact on this election. I mean, this is a state where a presidential election was decided by less than 600 votes. And so we believe, yes, we will have an impact. Voices of people who've been impacted by the criminal justice system will finally be heard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He's also the author of the new book called "Let My People Vote." Thank you very much.

MEADE: Thank you so much, Lulu, for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.