In 2004, Desmond Meade, while serving a 15-year prison sentence for a drug offense in Florida, got a break. An appeals court returned his conviction to the original trial bench, allowing him to plead guilty to a lesser charge and get out of prison in three years, most of which he had already served.
But his freedom came with a price, something that didn’t quite register with him at the time: as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors, Meade agreed to give up his civil rights: the right to vote, to serve on a jury and to run for office.
“At the time, when I first accepted the plea deal, I didn’t understand the consequences,” Meade says.
Fourteen years and a pair of college and law degrees later, Meade, now 50, still can’t vote; his application to regain his civil rights was rejected in 2011. The reason: a new Florida law that requires felons like him to wait for seven years before they could apply for rights restoration.
Home to nearly a quarter of the nation's disenfranchised felons, Florida has become a battleground in a national debate over felony disenfranchisement laws. With lawmakers deeply divided over the issue, Meade says he wants the state’s voters to change the system when they head to the polls on Nov. 6.
He’s promoting a ballot initiative that would amend the state's constitution, restoring the voting rights of all felons in Florida (except those convicted of murder and sexual assault) after they’ve completed the terms of their sentence.
The measure enjoys broad voter support. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February showed that 67 percent of Floridians were in favor of restoring the voting rights of felons other than those convicted of murder and sexual assault. Another poll showed support at 71 percent.
“We’re going to change the system,” Meade says confidently. “What we’re doing is taking the power out of the hands of politicians and we’re allowing the citizens of the state of Florida to decide whether or not folks should have a second chance, to be able to vote.”
Rates of Voter 'Disenfranchised' Soar
Meade is one of more than 6 million American citizens who have lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction. Their number has soared in recent decades as the U.S. prison population has ballooned.
Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affect African-Americans like Meade. One in 13 African-Americans of voting age can’t vote. It is a rate more than four times higher than for other races, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy organization. In Florida more than 1-in-5 African-Americans are disenfranchised.
But Meade says felony disenfranchisement crosses racial and political lines.
“This is what I can tell you: there are three times as many people who can’t vote in Florida who are not black,” Meade says.
When it comes to letting felons vote, the United States is out of line with the rest of the democratic world, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
Some democracies such as Canada allow prisoners to vote and politicians to campaign inside prisons. Other countries such as Britain restore prisoners' voting rights after serving their time.
“There is no other democratic nation that takes away the right to vote for the rest of your life as is done in some states in the U.S.,” Mauer says.
States Set Voter Qualifications
The U.S. Constitution gives the states the right to set voter qualifications and to disqualify anyone who participates in “rebellion, or other crime.” That has led to an assortment of voting rights laws for felons, ranging from the most liberal -- Maine and Vermont, which impose no restrictions on felons – to the strictest in four states, such as Florida, that permanently revoke the voting rights of convicted felons.
This panoply of statutes has led to confusion over who has the right to vote, sometimes with harsh consequences. Last month, a Texas judge sentenced a 43-year-old African-American woman to five years in prison for voting illegally in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release from prison.
Defenders of the practice say there are compelling reasons to bar felons from voting, a practice that dates as far back as ancient Greece and came to the United States from England.
“The short answer is: if you’re not willing to follow the law, you should not be making the law for everyone else,” says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.
The longer answer, Clegg says, is that voters must meet “certain minimum objective standards of responsibility and commitment to laws” before they’re empowered with voting rights.
“When you think about it, we don’t let everybody vote,” he says. “We don’t let children vote, we don’t let non-citizens vote, we don’t let mentally incapacitated people vote, and we don’t let people who have committed crimes against fellow citizens.”
Because of a high rate of recidivism among criminals, Clegg says felons must wait for a period of time to prove they’ve “turned over a new leaf” before they’re allowed to vote.
“Unfortunately, you can’t assume somebody is no longer a criminal just because they’re no longer in prison,” he says.
But advocates of broader rights say that the high rate of recidivism among felons is itself an argument for restoring their voting rights.
“When people come out of prison, if we hope to reduce recidivism, we need to have these people connected with positive institutions within the community,” Mauer says.
Another frequent argument advocates make is that the right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship. And just as a felon doesn’t lose the right to get married or divorced or to buy property, so, too, he or she shouldn’t lose the right to vote.
“If we say to people, you may have done your time in prison, but we’re still not going to permit you to vote, that’s essentially sending a message that they’re a second-class citizen,” Mauer says.
That’s how Meade, the married father of five, feels.
“I think voting is probably one of the purest expressions of citizenship,” Meade says. “As long as I’m not allowed to vote, I’m only a second-class citizen, if that at all.”
After the governor's board informed him in 2011 that his application had been rejected – five years after he’d submitted it – Mead had to wait another two years before he could reapply.
But instead of waiting, he founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots organization run by felons who call themselves “returning citizens,” while attending law school. The organization helps felons navigate Florida's cumbersome system of restoring felons' civil rights and apply to the board of clemency.
The board, made up of the governor and three elected cabinet members, meets quarterly to review about 100 cases from a backlog of more than 20,000. In some cases, applicants have to wait 10 years or more before the board hears their case.
“If I help you file an application today, you’ll not know anything about this application until May 2025,” Meade says.
Meade graduated from Florida International University College of Law in 2014 only to realize that he couldn't take the bar exam because he'd lost his civil rights. But by then he'd found a calling.
"Me not being able to vote, me not being able to practice law is not what sits at the heart of my passion," he says. "What sits at the heart of my passion is seeing my fellow citizens not being able to vote."