Voting Rights Restored to Felons in Florida: Could It Have Changed the Governor’s Race?

Ballot measure restoring rights to Felons was approved by 64% of the electorate in Florida.  Desmond Meade of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Eddie Conway, Executive Producer at The Real News Network discuss battles won and the fight ahead

Voting Rights Restored to Felons in Florida: Could It Have Changed the Governor's Race?

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

During Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters in Florida approved a ballot measure to reinstate voting rights to 1.4 million residents with felony convictions. These American citizens were barred from participating in elections even after having completed their sentences. The vote passed with 64 percent in favor, easily surpassing the 60 percent minimum needed for approval.

Voting rights advocates consider the Florida law that barred former felons from voting to be one of the country’s worst Jim Crow laws still on the books. Now, the law had prevented one in ten Floridians from voting. The recent races for governor and the senator will be decided with only tens of thousands of votes, which is a tiny fraction of the number of voters who will now be able to vote. There are only three states remaining with such backward laws in their books, and that is Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia.

From Florida, we are joined by Desmond Meade. He’s the Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. And I’m also joined by Eddie Conway, who is the executive producer of Rattling the Bars here The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us, Eddie.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Desmond, thank you for joining us. Desmond, first of all, congratulations on this amazing victory. It’s an example for the entire nation, not just Floridians, and those who benefited and will benefit in the future from what you’ve managed to do there in Florida. Give us a sense of what’s happening there and the pulse.

DESMOND MEADE: Thank you so much. And in Florida, we do use the term returning citizen to identify people who are formerly convicted of felony offenses. But we might have even change that now, because after this great win, we can say that we are returned now, and we have the opportunity to experience what it is to be a full citizen again.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, I understand Desmond, this issue is very close to your heart. So tell me when you started this endeavor of launching this campaign to restore the voting rights for Florida former felons.

DESMOND MEADE: Yes it is. This this issue has been very near and dear to my heart because I am a returning citizen. Because of drug addiction I have been in trouble quite a few times, but I was able to eventually turn my life around to the point where I was able to go to school, get several degrees and eventually the law school to get my law degree. But I couldn’t practice law in the state of Florida because of my convictions and my rights not being restored. And then of course, most of all, I couldn’t vote. And my wife ran for office in 2016, I couldn’t even vote for. And so, we started when- and that’s the beauty of this campaign, is the fact that it was led by people who are directly impacted, people who are closest to the pain.

And so, technically our campaign started in 2012, but in reality, our campaign started the moment we got the convicted of a felony offense, and we’ve been trying re-enter back into community. And so, I guess that’s the benefit of having people close to the pain lead, because in spite of folks not being on board, in spite of people thinking that there was no way possible that we was going to be able to get this done. It was a group of us that did believe that it was possible. We had no choice but to believe that it was possible because the only other option was going to be forever disbarred from voting again. And we didn’t like and that we pushed forward. And I’m so happy that we did, because on Tuesday, November 6, we crossed that finish line. And we have re-enfranchised over 1.4 Million Floridians who have served their time and paid their debt.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now speaking of the struggle, for those who are affected by all of this, we do have Eddie Conway right here in our studio, who actually spent quite a bit of time, 44 years, in prison here in Maryland. And Maryland had actually restored the rights for felons to vote right here in Maryland, and that victory happened when?

EDDIE CONWAY: Two years ago. But it was a campaign that we ran for four or five years before we were successful. And even after we won the vote in both Houses, the governor vetoed it and we had to go back and override his veto. But in 2016 our voting rights were restored immediately upon release from prison as long as we went and registered.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Eddie, you were in prison 44 point years as a political prisoner. Did you ever imagine that you would be able to get out and exercise your vote and be able to celebrate with your comrades in the struggle like this?

EDDIE CONWAY: Well actually, I met Desmond a couple of years ago, several years ago, and we had this discussion then. We always thought we would win these cases and that returning citizens, ex-felons, whatever you want to call us, or former prisoners, we always had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So we got everybody that we could that was invested, including our family members, in pushing the struggle forward. And so, it’s been successful across the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Desmond, the restoration of one point four million voters, if they were able to actually vote in this election, I think the results in Florida would have been quite different. What is the buzz in Florida regarding the election of the governor?

DESMOND MEADE: So hear this, though. I don’t know if that’s actually true. This is what I tell people, that when I was arrested the police didn’t ask me if I was a Democrat or Republican. When I appeared before that judge, the police didn’t ask me if I was a Democrat or Republican. And one of the narratives that we had to fight back in this campaign- because for years, people, when they looked at criminal justice or they thought about criminal justice reform or felon disenfranchisement, the face attached to that was my face. Well, not necessarily my face but the face of an African American. And we don’t lose sight of the fact that the African American population has been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

But in the state of Florida, when you look at raw numbers, what we found was that African Americans only accounted for one third of people who couldn’t vote. And so, a majority of people who can’t vote didn’t even look like me. But what they’re losing with the narrative, creating a false narrative, creating that illusion that the people who are going to benefit the most was African Americans, and the assumption that African Americans vote Democrat, and then the natural correlation that leads to a conclusion, albeit a false conclusion, that the re-enfranchisement of individuals would benefit one particular party. The reality though, is that African Americans make up a small percentage of the total amount of people whose rights are getting restored, number one.

And number two is that over 75 percent of people who are convicted in the state of Florida are not even sentenced to prison. And so, what we know is this, is that this issue has managed to impact people of all races, of all political persuasions from all different backgrounds. And so, we know because we’re on the ground and we have like that true data and not the not the other day that there are a lot of people try to look at. We know that there is a wide swath of individuals who are impacted by this, and it would be nearly impossible to even try to even speculate how the outcome of this past election would have been.

This is what we can tell you. As an organization, I can tell you that Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is very adamant about this, that we don’t lean left, or we don’t lean right. We lean straight forward into the issues that impact everyone, anyone who has been impacted by the criminal justice system, especially those that have a felony conviction and their family members.

SHARMINI PERIES: What’s your response to that, Eddie?

EDDIE CONWAY: Wow. Well, I stand corrected. Because for one, I have looked at Florida’s situation for a number of years and I have always had the sense that African American voters had been disenfranchised more so than anybody else. I look back at the George Bush-Gore election and felt like the ballot boxes had been tampered with, that the Black vote had been stolen. And then afterwards, they repaired it once they won the presidency. I look at this and see that the governor’s race, I concluded, has been stolen also because of so many people disenfranchised. And that’s what I see in Ohio, I see it time and time again, gerrymandering or either just election fraud, over and over again. And it always seems to disproportionately affect the Black community and the Black vote. And so, your clarity kind of gives me a different perspective on it. We can’t tell exactly what would happen, but we know something bad is happening.

DESMOND MEADE: Let me share some things with you guys. When I started out on this journey, I averaged over 50,000 miles a year on my car without leaving the state of Florida. Let me say that again. Over 50,000 a year on my car. And I was going around every part of Florida, in the urban and the rural communities. Let me show you what I found out; that the rural communities and Florida had convicted a higher percentage of their population than in the urban communities. What I found was that even in the conservative counties, there was a ton of convictions. We had the opioid crisis, the meth crisis. People were getting convicted of felony offences left and right. And a lot of folks did not like me. The overwhelming majority did not.

And when we’re collecting petitions, the first places I went was to conservative places to collect my petitions. We had folks collecting petitions at Trump rallies. And I’m going to tell you, when we talk about creating a more inclusive democracy, we can only be true to that if we’re creating a more inclusive democracy for everyone. And so that means that the reality is, is that in our campaign we were fighting just as hard for that guy who wished he could have voted for Donald Trump as we were for the guy who wished he could both Barack Obama. Because every person should be able to have that opportunity to vote, regardless of how we think they may vote. That should not ever be in the equation.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Eddie. Speaking of inclusive democracies, no matter what color or political persuasion, there’s still struggles to be launched in Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia. So, my last question to both of you gentlemen is, what efforts are being taken in order to ensure that we can replicate what happened in Florida and Maryland, in these other states like Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia?

DESMOND MEADE: A few years ago, Kentucky had a national champion, that actually even goes against the narrative, right, because the main national figure from years ago that’s been championing the re-enfranchisement of folks had been Congressman Rand Paul out of the state of Kentucky. And I even remember that the legislature in Kentucky came extremely close into passing legislation that would have re-enfranchised a significant amount of individuals. As a matter of fact, it was so close that Congressman Paul left D.C. to fly back to the capital of Kentucky and testified on the floor on behalf of this legislation. And I know, through the work of the League of Women Voters, ACLU and other organizations on the ground in Kentucky, that they have been able to really move some hearts and minds of our legislators there.

And so, it will be interesting to see what happens. Now, how do you move forward from there? I think that our campaign in Florida was unprecedented because we took some very volatile subjects, felons, voting and Florida, which has always been a pivotal state in elections, and we put these three ingredients together that any expert would tell you it was not going to be successful, but we were actually able to pull together and we had no organized opposition against this, not one law enforcement officers spoke out against this. We had endorsements from the Koch Industries all the way to the ACLU to the Christian Coalition, the Florida TaxWatch to the AMEs and all points in between. To see a campaign that dealt with a topic that is politically volatile, to see that we actually was able to be successful with it, speaks to the nature of how we campaign.

And I tell people that we got over five million votes to pass this amendment and they were five million votes of love. They wasn’t votes of fear, they wasn’t votes of hate, they were votes of love. And so, I do believe that we have something special here in Florida, that we’ve shown the rest of the country that we can move major issues, we can move major criminal justice issues, we can move major human dignity and human rights issues if we can operate along the lines and connect with each other along the lines of humanity and allow ourselves to transcend partisan bickering, allow ourselves to transcend our racial anxieties, and meet each other along the lines of humanity and with love the inclusiveness, all things are possible. We proved that it could be done. We did it in the most difficult state to pass an initiative, we did it with flying colors. And I think that we’re going to be an example for the rest of the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: And that was Desmond Meade, he’s the Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. And I was also joined in our studios in Baltimore by Eddie Conway, who is the Executive Producer of Rattling the Bars on The Real News Network. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining me.

DESMOND MEADE: Thank you so much for having me on.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining me here on The Real News Network.