Desmond Meade has been fighting for rights restoration for Florida’s returning citizens for decades. The President of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition spoke to that fight Monday morning at a panel conversation hosted by Rep. Charlie Crist.
As a main author of Amendment 4 and himself a returning citizen (a term used for someone who has left prison and is integrating back into society), Meade dispelled myths surrounding the amendment and explained why some of the critiques of the amendment are unfounded.
Since it’s passage in Nov. 2018, when nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved the measure, Amendment 4 has been one of the most high-profile voting rights issues in the state and across the nation. The measure, which restored voting rights to returning citizens convicted of felonies, has also been the topic of fierce partisan debate in the Florida legislature and national media.
Implementing legislation for Amendment 4, written by the Florida legislature, requires returning citizens to pay “all financial obligations assessed at the time of sentencing,” including statutory fees, legal costs, and administrative fees. Voting rights advocates across the state and country have called that requirement a modern day poll tax. Some have characterized Florida Republican legislators that control the Florida House and Senate as racist for putting those requirements into the legislation.
“There are a lot of people – even in the media – speaking about this ballot initiative that only played a small part in the historical narrative and don’t know the entire context,” Meade explained. “There’s no one on this entire planet that has been engaged in this ballot initiative process more than I have.”
Tight restrictions on ballot initiatives made the entire process much more difficult than many realize, Meade said. Florida Rights Restoration Coalition battled with strict restrictions on language and word count, and making sure that the summary, title and body of the amendment weren’t confusing to voters and wouldn’t violate Florida Supreme Court rules. According to Meade, the eventual ballot amendment was the result of two years of conferring with former Supreme Court justices, elected officials, judges and the top constitutional lawyers in Florida and throughout the country. It was also the result of extensive polling, testing and focus groups all over the state.
Once it was time to put the amendment down into implementing legislation, however, debate turned heavily partisan. “As soon as politicians got involved, as soon as the governor got involved, there was a lot of dialogue,” Meade said. “What’s lost in the dialogue was some truth that was there and has been overshadowed.”
Meade characterized Amendment 4 as “imperfect” due to the carve-outs purposely built into it to ensure passage. He explained that, contrary to national media narratives on both sides of the aisle, “We knew going in that there were going to be some financial obligations.”
In Meade’s remarks Monday, he called for the movement to rise above partisanship as he focused squarely on the concepts of love and forgiveness, explaining that the debate surrounding Amendment 4 has been counter productive to the rights restoration cause.
“On that night in Nov 2018, when over 5.1 million people voted yes on Amendment 4, that was 1 million more people voted for amendment 4 than any candidate that was on the ballot,” Meade said. “At least 1 million people who voted for amendment 4 also voted for our current governor.
“What we were able to accomplish in this political climate was nothing short of a miracle. That’s another reminder that God had his hands on this campaign from day one.”
As Meade explained, the Amendment 4 battle wasn’t about partisanship, it was about forgiveness and redemption and connecting with people on a truly human level.
“We didn’t attack anybody, we didn’t get involved in the political fray,” he said. “We kept our campaign elevated above that, above partisan politics, above racial anxieties and implicit biases and we connected with people along the lines of humanity.
He compared that basic human connection, compassion and forgiveness displayed in the passage of Amendment 4 with communities coming together after a hurricane, or witnessing a car crash on the highway.
“You’re driving down 275 right now, this morning, and you see an accident in the road and you decide to help,” Meade said, setting the scene. “And you get out of your car and you run up to that person – your first question is not going to be, ‘Did you vote for Donald Trump?’ It’s not going to be, ‘How much money do you make?’ or, ‘What is your immigration status?’
“Your first question is going to be, ‘Are you okay?’ and ‘How can I help?’