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Ex-felons in Florida enjoy new freedom: Registering to vote

"This is a moment that seemed so far away at one point, but now it’s here."
Image: Desmond Meade, Sheena Meade
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, fills out a voter registration form Tuesday as his wife, Sheena, looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando.John Raoux / AP

Desmond Meade served time in prison for drug-related offenses in the early 2000s. On Tuesday, he registered to vote after not being eligible for the last several years.

He wasn't alone. An estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony records were eligible to register to vote on Tuesday thanks to the passage of Amendment 4 in the November elections.

The landmark ballot initiative restored voting rights to state residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

Around 8 a.m. Tuesday, Meade, his wife, Sheena, 36, and three of their five children met up with other formerly incarcerated people at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando.

“That whole process just reminded me of back in the civil rights era when dad and mom went to vote they brought the whole family," said a tearful Meade as his daughter, Xcellence Glenn, 15, a high school freshman and an organizer with Black Youth Vote, helped him fill out his voter registration form.

"It was just overwhelming," he said. "This is a moment that seemed so far away at one point, but now it’s here.”

Meade, 51, of Orlando, was one of many volunteers who went door-to-door in 2017 and 2018 collecting more than 766,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Having earned a law degree in 2014, he is now the president of the grassroots group behind the measure, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Image: Desmond Meade, David Ayala
Desmond Meade, left, and David Ayala, both former felons, with copies of their voter registration forms after they registered at the Supervisor of Elections office on Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.John Raoux / AP

Meade was joined by David Ayala, 45, a community organizer for Latino Justice who served seven years in federal prison for drug-related crimes.

Ayala was accompanied by his wife, Aramis Ayala, 43, a state prosecutor, and his sister, Mariely Feraro, 38, who surprised him by taking the day off from work.

David credited his wife and sister with helping him change his life, noting that millions of other Americans are released from prison without the necessary support from friends and family, let alone the government.

“My sister was the one picking me up at the halfway house when she was eight months pregnant,” he said. “I didn’t know she was going to be there. That’s when the tears really started to roll down. I was thinking back to the time in my life. If I didn’t have the support from her, I wouldn’t be here today.

"The easy part is doing the time. The hard part is getting out and staying out and being able to navigate all these obstacles that are thrown at you.”

David Ayala is joined by his sister, Mariely Feraro, left, and his wife, state attorney Aramis Ayala, as he fills out his voter registration card at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 8, 2019.
David Ayala is joined by his sister, Mariely Feraro, left, and his wife, state attorney Aramis Ayala, as he fills out his voter registration card at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 8, 2019.Esther de Rothchild

Under the former governor, Rick Scott, formerly incarcerated people were forced to wait five years after finishing their sentences before being able to apply to have their voting rights reinstated, and approval was at the discretion of the governor.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about how Amendment 4’s passage will affect Florida’s local, state and federal elections going forward. In its November/December issue, Mother Jones pointed out that during the 2012 election cycle, 59 percent of formerly incarcerated people previously granted voting rights by then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist registered as Democrats.

But the campaign to pass Amendment 4 received bipartisan support from the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom Partners, a Koch Brothers-backed conservative nonprofit organization.

And Meade, who said he registered as an independent on Tuesday, said that political operatives who think they know how formerly incarcerated people will vote based on demographics are deluding themselves.

“Any elected official on either side of the aisle, they need to earn the vote of the 1.4 million people,” he said. “They don’t just get it.”

Nearly half of the individuals having their voting rights restored are black or Latino, at 29.6 percent and 20 percent, respectively, according to Neil Volz, a Florida Rights Restoration Coalition board member and its communications director.

Volz himself is a former felon, having pleaded guilty in 2006 in a corruption scandal that brought down conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Volz said that formerly incarcerated people come from all walks of life and that the unique set of issues affecting them could be addressed by either political party. He said he thought Amendment 4, which passed with 65 percent approval, would have a big impact on the 2020 presidential race, "but I think it’s going to be more about the issues discussed more than some pre-conceived outcome.”

“Republicans or Democrats, people are going to be open to seeing what they do in terms of the issues that affect them most," he said.

Image: Desmond Meade, Melanie Campbell
Desmond Meade, left, with Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition Black Civic Participation, after registering to vote on Tuesday in Orlando. John Raoux / AP

Next on Meade’s agenda is launching a statewide engagement campaign to ensure that all who are eligible to register to vote thanks to Amendment 4 are aware of their rights and do so in 2020.

“We’ve still got work to do in getting people registered to vote and engaged and educated on the issues,” Meade said.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition also wants “returning citizens” to tell it about additional challenges they’re facing so it can push lawmakers to draft more legislation or other ballot initiatives.

“There are some things people are concerned about," Meade said. "When people have served their time, are they able to get good jobs, and earn a decent living? We’re going to take what our members are saying, and that’s going to guide our path forward.”

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