When Desmond Meade’s wife ran for office last year, her husband phone banked, canvassed, and fundraised on her behalf—but he didn’t vote.
That’s because Meade is a convicted felon in Florida where more than 1.5 million otherwise eligible voters are disenfranchised by law. Meade was convicted on drug and gun possession charges and released from prison in 2005. Meade has served as president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition since 2014, and next year a ballot initiative proposed by his group might just reinstate his rights. The Florida Supreme Court approved the initiative’s language earlier this month. Now, Floridians for a Fair Democracy and the FRRC need to collect approximately 700,000 signatures to get the initiative on the state’s November 2018 ballot.
“My first major awakening was when I couldn’t apply for the Florida bar, but the most painful experience was when my wife ran for office and I couldn’t even vote for her,” Meade told The Daily Beast. “It was like a slap in the face. It was a knife being twisted in an old wound, reminding me I’m still not a full citizen.”
If it passes, Meade’s initiative would automatically restore voting rights to people with prior felony convictions, more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-eligible population. Those convicted of murder or sexual offenses would not have their voting rights restored.
Florida is one of just four states that permanently disenfranchises people convicted of felonies unless they successfully petition for clemency. Florida’s first constitution, adopted in 1838, barred those “convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor” from voting. After the Civil War, the state was required to amend its constitution to extend the right to vote to black men, but it continued to disenfranchise “any person convicted of felony.”
“It’s no secret that the history of felon disenfranchisement can be traced to when the slaves were freed,” Meade said. “While it originally had a racist intent, the policy in its current form impacts everyone.”
Under the state’s current rules, adopted in 2011, ex-felons who have completed their sentence must wait five years (seven if they’ve been convicted of select crimes including murder, DUI manslaughter, and sexual battery) before applying for clemency. If applicants are arrested for misdemeanors or felonies, the clock resets.
But due to a massive backlog, it’s common for applicants to wait up to ten years without an update from the state’s Executive Clemency Board, according to a suit the Fair Elections Legal Network filed against Gov. Rick Scott in March. The board meets in Tallahassee just four times a year, and the backlog of pending applications has ballooned in recent years, with more than 10,000 applicants waiting to plead their cases.
Once an applicant gets a chance to face the board, their application must be approved by a majority of board members, including Scott. “The Governor has the unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for any reason,” the rules state—a stipulation the Fair Elections Legal Network says can be abused.
“You can’t give government officials unfettered discretion to license some people to vote and deny that license to others, and that’s what the rules of executive clemency do,” Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network told The Daily Beast. “Because it’s purely at the governor and board’s discretion, a lot of people try to curry favor by appealing to the governor’s political leanings.”
The 77-page complaint against Scott claims that he has regularly denied clemency to people for crimes as trivial as traffic violations while reinstating the civil rights of people who have committed more serious offenses.
Scott reinstated applicant Stephen Warner’s right to vote in 2013 despite the fact that Warner illegally voted in 2010—a felony under the state’s voting laws. Warner told Scott he voted for him in that election. Similarly, last year the Republican governor reinstated the voting rights of Robert Martin after a local police officer spoke on his behalf and said Martin was “very conservative.”
In 2012, however, Scott denied clemency to Rex Carver, a veteran who spoke about the injustice of felon disenfranchisement at his hearing. Carver has not committed any major crimes since being released from prison, but Scott denied his appeal because of a minor traffic violation.
“If you look at it from our standpoint, you look at it and you say, gosh, this is an individual that doesn’t worry about complying with the law,” Scott said at Carver’s hearing.
At another hearing in March 2013, Scott denied Joseph Galasso’s petition on similar grounds.
“So you’ve really turned your life around. You’ve been out of prison eleven years and you’ve got all these traffic violations,” Scott said. “If you don’t really care about the law, and you have all these traffic violations, it’s hard to say gosh, you really believe the law.”
Since Scott took office in 2011, fewer than 2,500 ex-felons have had their rights restored.
Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, restored the rights of 155,315 former felons during his four years in office. Crist had amended the clemency rules to provide an automatic path for voting rights for ex-felons who completed their sentences and had no pending criminal charges. Scott’s reversed these rules in 2011, added a mandatory waiting period, and required that many applicants travel to Tallahassee for an in-person hearing, creating a staggering backlog of applicants.
“Governor Scott believes that in order for felons to have their rights restored, they have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored, and show restitution to the victims of their crime,” a spokesperson from Scott’s office told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Meade looks at the state’s history of disenfranchisement as a “tumor.”
“It starts in one part of the body, but left unattended it spreads to the rest of the body and becomes more dangerous,” Meade said. “This is what happened here: the original intent was to keep freed slaves from voting, but this policy has managed to transcend racial lines and now impacts more non-African Americans than African Americans. When I was canvassing for my wife, every two or three households there was someone who couldn’t vote. This impacts so many families.”