Desmond Meade is a popular speaker and activist most known for his work as the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which fights to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. Meade is also the chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law.
We were fortunate enough to spend some time with him this week on, What We Don't Know; Voter Rights & Voter Suppression. Meade explains to us his work and achievements and details his journey from his time from being incarcerated, struggling with drugs, and homelessness to becoming one of Time Magazine's top 100 most influential people in 2019. Meade is bringing awareness to the injustice of voter suppression that is all too common and normalized nationwide.
What Is This Voter Suppression Everyone Is Talking About?
Voting suppression is any act or rule that makes it challenging for a citizen to vote. According to the Voting Rights Alliance, there are up to 61 forms of voter suppression happening. Some don't raise any alarm because they seem like mild inconveniences, such as long lines or polling sites in locations with limited public transportation, but many suppressions significantly affect people.
Some examples listed below include:
The Elderly and/or Disabled
Racial and Ethnic Barriers
There are many more obstacles that make managing time a challenge with mail-in and registration timelines. The most egregious suppression are those that are deceptive in practice like robocalls with false information.
When it comes to people who have had run-ins with the law in their past, obstacles are even greater. As we have learned during our look into prison systems, non-convicted people make up more than half of the prison population, yet many states take away their voting rights during their pre-trial periods. In some cases, pre-trial detainees who have the right to vote are obstructed by police departments as with the case at Indiana Allen County Jail in 2017, where a class-action lawsuit was filed by 150 eligible voters who they were not given absentee ballots or given any information as required for the 2016 election.
When it comes to being convicted, the deal is, you go to jail, you pay your debt to society, then all is back to normal, right? Well, sure, except you forever lose the right to vote again in many states. No matter the crime, regardless of the punishment served, previously convicted individuals are often permanently stripped of their right to participate fully in society through being stripped of voting rights.
We know at the core of most Americans is that concept of forgiveness, redemption, and restoration, at the core, we know that once a debt is paid, it's paid. And the American citizen should be allowed to move on with their life."– Desmond Meade
When Did This Start?
American voting suppression saw it’s rise in 1870 when laws finally allowed for men of all races to have the right to vote which included freed slaves and continues to affect marginalized people today.
By the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), southern states fought against voter inclusion with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws on their side. Many states began adding a variety of restrictions that hurt poor and black people, such as poll taxes. Poll taxes required payment to vote; this law, surprisingly, didn't see an end until 1962.
Literacy tests were required to gain access to voting polls, and usually, the harder tests were reserved for black people, and sometimes the tests were exempt for white property owners. By 1890, the black vote, which once matched and often exceeded the white vote, was down by 99%.
It wasn't until 1965, through the fight of civil rights leaders, like recently departed John Lewis, Lyndon B Johnson eradicated these voting suppressions with the introduction of The Voting Rights Act. The Act was a considerable achievement, but decades of intimidation deterrents and a resurgence of restrictions would come to light again in the 1980s and 90s with voting purging and caging.
Here's a brief history of voter suppression in America
Cage and purge; sounds like a bad horror movie, and it is quite the nightmare when it comes to voting rights.
Voter Caging is the process of invalidating someone's right to vote by using their address as proof of non-proof of legitimacy, often tallied by tracking political mailers returned or considered undeliverable. The name on the address goes on a list, and the mailer, usually from a particular political campaign party, can later contest that person's vote. A more recent example of this was in 2008. Obama sought injunctions on the Republican party for claiming fraud due to voters using addresses of their formally foreclosed homes. A judge ruled that this was unlawful, yet, currently, this Act is only illegal in Minnesota.
Voter Purging is the practice of removing names from the official state lists or voter rolls. In theory, this is a rule of checks and balances to ensure legal voting, depending on state rules. It also removes people that have moved out of state or have passed away. However, there are many issues with this practice as it isn't always accurate, and a voter often won't know of their purged status until the day they show up to vote.
In 1998, Florida purged names that matched formerly incarcerated people, which 89% of those listed were black. Many of those names were inaccurately purged. In 2008 Georgia purged 98,000 names, many inaccurately or due to claims of inactivity, and in 2015 NYC purged over 122,454 people that disproportionately affected Hispanic voters, which later the city had to apologize for publicly.
Though purging has multiple reasons, which is problematic, in itself, the leading group of people who become disenfranchised voters is those formerly incarcerated, especially in states where voting restrictions last a lifetime, such as in Kentucky and Iowa.
Listen to Stacy Abrams break down what she sees as three current forms of Voter Suppression
Many people may grimace at the idea of a formerly incarcerated or returning citizen fighting for the right to vote. It may seem low on the scale of worthy causes, but upholding everyone's constitutional rights is vital to Meade, many activists, and the principles of US citizenship.
Disenfranchisement, the removal of suffrage; the right to vote, affects 5.85 million returning American citizens and often includes those convicted of only misdemeanors. When individuals conclude their time served, they are expected to return to civilization and carry on as usual. They should do so with all of their rights restored immediately, but often they are unable to participate in voting. Even in cases when rights are restored, it's after a specific time frame of probation or parole that can cause someone to miss essential elections.
Desmond Meade knows this experience all too well because he not only served his time but went above and beyond to better rehabilitate and educate himself. He received his bachelor's degree in public safety and focused on criminal justice.
"In May 2014, I graduated from Florida International University College of Law with a Juris doctorate while being on the dean's list.", Meade explains, "However, despite the different accomplishments that I was able to attain or the obstacles I was able to overcome, because I lived in Florida, I still couldn't practice law because my civil rights were not restored."
Recently there have been disputes of mail-in voting validity and the witnessing of mailboxes being uprooted from streets and hauled away is leaving many feeling the weight and fear of voter suppression. Meade explains to us some of the other main suppressions happening today in regards to who they are affecting.
Desmond Meade believes propaganda normalizes the stripping of certain people of their rights, whether it be due to race, poverty, or class. It's discriminatory suppression that has gone on for centuries. The nation finds itself in a new civil rights fight with the uprising of recent protests this year, but Meade reminds us that we've always been in this fight and its many forms.
"Do you think it's only now DA's started having power or sheriffs started having power? Do you think it's only now that these problems have existed in our police departments?" Meade asks, "They have existed from the very beginning, but no one wanted to listen to us because we were labeled criminals we were labeled dangerous."
Victory; Only The Beginning
With what we now know of the history of voter suppression tactics that followed the freedom of slaves, comparisons are easily drawn to today's intimidation at the polls and early closures to the injustice of hindered voting rights to returning citizens. Meade, having served his time and becoming a pillar of society through his high level of education and fierce advocacy, feels this stigma is unfair and unjust.
His hard work for this cause gained him access to The White House for a historic meeting during the Obama Administration. Here, he was able to push fourth Amendment 4 for Florida in 2018, which was a major victory that restored the voting rights of 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people. While this is a great achievement, it's crucial to know that Meade and the ACLU are still currently fighting to end the contingencies of fees and court cost requirements within the Act. The stipulations require returning citizens to pay before being allowed to vote.
Today, only Maine and Vermont maintain voter rights to prisoners during and after incarceration. Currently, 21 states reinstate voting rights after payment of fees and parole time is concluded. 11 U.S. states have indefinite removal of voting rights with the rare exceptions of governor pardons.
There is still much work to be done in maintaining people’s basic civic rights as Amendment 4 remains in danger of being attacked by Florida lawmakers dragging their feet on clarifying policies and requiring fees paid, which average $1,000 or more per person, before being able to vote.
In September, former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg contributed 16 million to FFRC to pay fees but there is still a long road to go to end the stifling of American voices. As we approach this coming election, Meade reminds us of the positive outlook and beginnings that Amendment 4 brings. He believes Florida is the "at the center," setting the stage of influence for political outcomes, as Meade says, "I have yet in my life found to see anyone get in the White House without winning Florida." He firmly believes his organization, FRRC, will pave the way as an example of how to engage the newly restored voters politically.
You can follow the steps of Desmond Meade’s grassroots work through the 2018 documentary, Let My People Vote directed by Gilda Brasch. It has won various awards and was featured on NBC’s Meet The Press Film Festival. The film follows Meade throughout his campaign in Tampa Florida to get people to the polls during the 2016 election. The film is a rollercoaster of emotions as various voter suppressions unfold but it was recently re-edited to include Meade’s victorious win of Amendment 4. Go to the link below to request a virtual screening or to join a screening event.
I have said this before, and I will say it again, the vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy."- John Lewis
To stay connected with Desmond and his mission with FRRC join them virtually for Advocacy Night Page that assists returning citizens and topics about employment, politics, and COVID-19.
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