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Courts / Law

Voting Rights Groups Want Constitutional Amendment To Make Voting Easier For Felons

It's estimated that more than 1.5 million Floridians can't vote because of their criminal pasts.
It's estimated that more than 1.5 million Floridians can't vote because of their criminal pasts.

Convicted felons in Florida lose the right to vote for life. So even after their sentences have been served and any probationary period is over, they still can't vote. Florida is one of three states where that's the case.  

It's estimated that more than 1.5 million Floridians can't vote because of their criminal pasts.
Credit Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net
It's estimated that more than 1.5 million Floridians can't vote because of their criminal pasts.

Only the governor and the clemency board can restore that right, and the process can take a decade or longer. Those convicted of less serious crimes have to wait five years before they can even apply with more serious offenders having to wait seven years. There's a coalition of voting rights groups that wants to get a constitutional amendment passed to change this process.  

Desmond Meade leads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He's also a felon who served time on drugs and weapons charges before graduating with honors from Miami Dade College and finishing law school at Florida International University. 

He says he voted in the past, even casting absentee ballots while he was serving overseas in the military. But now he's lost that right, and he's not alone.

The coalition reports that more than 1.5 million Floridians fall under this category.

Florida is one of three states were felons lose their voting rights for life. They can apply to have these rights restored, but that's a long, arduous process.
Florida is one of three states were felons lose their voting rights for life. They can apply to have these rights restored, but that's a long, arduous process.

Meade recently joined us from an office in West Palm Beach to discuss his work. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

When did this issue become personal to you?

Well, this issue became personal to me ironically when it wasn't involving me. It was actually involving other people. To see an elderly man who may have committed a crime in his twenties, served his time and over a span of 40 years never get in trouble again, and he still cannot get his rights restored because he had a traffic ticket.

Then in my case knowing what I've been able to overcome in my life and not be able to sit for the bar, not be able to vote, I think that that's also unfair as well. But my initial motivation is really just seeing how American citizens throughout this great state were suffering. 

Desmond Meade graduated from law school at Florida International University, but he can't sit for the bar or vote because of his status as a felon.
Credit Xcellence Glenn
Desmond Meade graduated from law school at Florida International University, but he can't sit for the bar or vote because of his status as a felon.

In that example you gave about that elderly man, can you explain how a traffic ticket was keeping him from voting?

Once a person has committed or been convicted of a felony offense, in order to get their rights restored, they basically have to demonstrate that they have been living a perfect life. The question I present is, who among us is living a perfect life? To expect a person to go 10, 20 years and not even get a speeding ticket is crazy. 

In some cases you may be up against public opinion with this effort. How do you deal with that?

One of the things that I definitely like to highlight is that in Florida it is so easy to be convicted of a felony. In Florida, a person can be convicted of a felony for driving with a suspended license too often. Then there are a lot of low-level drug offenses. The majority of people who are convicted of felonies are convicted for non-violent offenses. 

Are there any other states that you look to as a model of what you would like to see in Florida? 

In Maine and Vermont, an individual, an American citizen, never [loses] their right to vote. I know that some people might not agree with that. To use as an illustration, I sometimes talk about my sons. I have four sons, and I know that there are sometimes that my sons they would make some boneheaded decisions. But in spite of the mistakes or the wrongs that my sons may have committed, they never stop being my sons. They never stop being a Meade. Our criminal justice system is set up to where if you make a mistake and you're caught, you pay for those mistakes. But you never stop being an American citizen. 

     

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