Inside the Unlikely Movement to Restore Voting Rights to 1.4 Million Floridians

From today’s Mother Jones Magazine:

On a muggy August day in 2005, Desmond Meade stood in front of the railroad tracks north of downtown Miami and prepared to take his life. He’d been released from prison early after a 15-year sentence for gun possession was reduced to three years, but he was addicted to crack, without a job, and homeless. “The only thing going through my mind was how much pain I’d feel when I jumped in front of the oncoming train,” Meade said. “I was a broken man.”

But the train never came, and eventually Meade walked two blocks to a drug treatment center and checked himself in. He got clean, enrolled in school, and received a law degree from Florida International University in 2014. Meade should have been the archetypal recovery success story­—­“[God] took a crackhead and made a lawyer out of him,” as he put it. But he’s not allowed to practice law. And when his wife ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016, he couldn’t vote for her. “My story still doesn’t have a happy ending,” he said. “Because despite the fact that I’ve dedicated my life to being an asset to my community, I still can’t vote.”

Meade was recounting his experience this summer at a gathering of ex-­offenders in Ocala, a conservative city of 60,000 in central Florida, 80 miles north of Orlando. Florida’s primaries were just days away, and there was an early voting center nearby, lined by signs for the candidates.

But 1.69 million Floridians like Meade aren’t able to participate in the 2018 elections. Florida bans people with felony records from voting, practicing law, or serving on a jury. Across the United States, 6.1 million ex-felons can’t vote. Some states prohibit people from voting while they’re on probation or parole or have unpaid fines, but Florida is one of only four, along with Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, that still bar ex-felons from voting indefinitely unless their rights are restored by the governor. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida disenfranchises more citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee combined. Ten percent of the state’s adult population is ineligible to vote because of a criminal record, including 1 in 5 African Americans. Florida counts 533 different infractions as felonies, including crimes like disturbing a lobster trap and trespassing on a construction site. “Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation” is an unofficial slogan.

Meade, 51, speaks with the cadence of a preacher and has a physique befitting his former job as a bodyguard to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tupac Shakur. It was an oppressively hot day, and he and the 100 attendees—many of them older white men with tattoos who would not have looked out of place at a Donald Trump rally—took refuge beneath Spanish-moss-covered oak trees in a city park. He wore a black “Say YES to Second Chances” T-shirt. “This movement sits at the heart of a simple slogan: When a debt is paid, it’s paid,” Meade said. “We don’t care how you might vote or whether you vote at all, but every American citizen deserves that opportunity to at least earn the eligibility to vote again.”

In 2009, Meade became head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition(FRRC), and he was soon putting 50,000 miles a year on his car to help gather the nearly 800,000 signatures needed to place the Voting Restoration Amendment on the 2018 ballot. Amendment 4, as it’s called on the ballot, would automatically restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with felony records who have completed their full sentences, but not those convicted of murder or a sexual offense. “It’s the largest enfranchisement of new voters since the Voting Rights Act,” says Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of StayWoke, an advocacy group started by Black Lives Matter activists. “It’s the biggest thing happening in the country with regard to voting rights.”

Read the complete article here.

For Former Felons, Voting Rights Could Be a Click Away Thanks to New Website

From today’s Roll Call:

Millions of new voters could register across the country, starting Tuesday, with the launch of an online tool meant to help former felons restore their right to vote.

The Campaign Legal Center’s website, restoreyourvote.org, attempts to guide users through a sometimes confusing jumble of state laws to determine whether past convictions or unpaid fines would keep them from the ballot box.

It is the latest salvo in a growing movement to politically empower formerly incarcerated people, a group that is disproportionately African-American. It is unclear how much of an effect such efforts will have on elections because they are more likely to infuse urban areas that already lean left with more Democratic voters. But organizers have framed the issue as a question of civil rights.

“There is a lot of misinformation, and the laws can be complicated,” said Blair Bowie, a Campaign Legal Center voting rights fellow. “This certainly is an opportunity for people with convictions to assert their voices in elections.”

Read the complete article here.

How will federal appeals court rule on Florida felon voting rights case?

From today’s Miami Herald:

Yraida Guanipa, a Miami consultant, stood outside the federal appeals court Wednesday morning in downtown Atlanta dressed in a bright orange scarf draped over a smart dark gray suit.

Guanipa has a master’s degree and is working on a doctorate, achievements she has made since her release from prison in 2006.

Despite her academic successes and the creation of a business devoted to helping other families deal with the stain of incarceration, the shame and pain of the 11 years Guanipa served behind bars for drug-related charges persists.

That’s because she can’t vote.

Under a Florida process scrutinized Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Guanipa is one of hundreds of thousands of felons waiting to have their voting rights restored.

“This is another sentencing that is a timeless sentence,” said Guanipa, who was born in Venezuela. “Every time I talk to somebody about I cannot vote, it feels like I’m still incarcerated. It feels like I’m still doing part of the sentence.”

Guanipa is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the Florida Board of Executive Clemency’s process for restoring the right to vote to felons like her who’ve completed their sentences and paid restitution. Gov. Rick Scott, aided by Attorney General Pam Bondi, initiated the revamped process shortly after taking office in 2011.

Read the complete article here.

Millions of ex-cons lost the right to vote. Now they might get it back.

From today’s NBC News:

Dean Turner never voted before he went to prison. But his right to cast a ballot was the last barrier to rebuilding his life once he got out.

Released in February 2016, after more than a decade behind bars for selling drugs, the 50-year-old Virginian worked his way up from dishwasher to line chef by Googling how to cook. He started mentoring young men, and coaches a writing class at Virginia Commonwealth University based on the book he helped write while incarcerated. But until last fall, Turner was one of the estimated 6.1 million Americans — 2.5 percent of the nation’s voting-age population — barred from voting by a felony conviction.

“When you’re able to vote, that means you have a voice in the world,” Turner told NBC News. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, restored his voting rights last year, and Turner cast his first-ever ballot in November 2017.

“It was the best feeling,” he said. “That was the little stamp of approval that I turned myself around, I’m a citizen of society.”

Virginia isn’t the only state with a recent push to restore voting rights to ex-offenders. AlabamaWyoming and Maryland have also begun easing voting restrictions for released felons, while Florida organizers announced Tuesday that they had succeeded in gathering enough signatures for a ballot initiative this November that would rewrite the state’s permanent felon voting ban and give an estimated 1.5 million ex-offenders the vote.

Nearly every state has laws to prevent people convicted of a felony — a crime more serious than a misdemeanor — from voting, though policies vary. Some 14 states disenfranchise felons while in prison, and another 22 disenfranchise during post-release periods like probation and parole as well, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Virginia is one of 12 states that bars ex-offenders from voting even after their sentences are complete. In order for ballot access to be restored, these states require waiting periods, an application process, or action from the state’s governor. McAuliffe used his executive authority to individually reinstate voting rights to some 173,000 ex-offenders, including Turner, before leaving office in January.

Read the complete article here.