Desmond Meade is a voting rights activist and is the President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and a Ford Global Fellow. In 2018, he led the FRRC to a historic triumph with the passage of Amendment 4—a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. The initiative has been hailed as the largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in the last 50 years. In 2019, Meade was recognized by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and was named Floridian of the Year. He is the author of Let My People Vote, which details his time as a homeless person, his political activism, and the movement he led to enfranchise fellow “returning citizens,” (a term his organization uses for individuals with previous felony convictions.)
Sam Kolitch: This was your first time voting in a presidential election. What was going through your head as you cast your ballot?
Desmond Meade: When I was approaching the polling location with my family, my mind was on two sets of people. It was on my ancestors, who were basically murdered through state-sanctioned violence—they were hung, burned alive, beaten, or bitten by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses— just so people like me would be able to have the right to vote. My mind also went to the returning citizens—people with prior felony convictions. At that time, there were about 774,000 of them who were not able to vote because they had outstanding fines and fees. I was thinking about how they were not going to get the opportunity to vote.
SK: You’ve described voting as a “sacred act”. What do you mean by that?
DM: As I was walking into the voting booth, I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground. I really felt like I was engaging in a sacred act. That sacredness elevated voting above being political.
Voting said something simple, yet powerful. It said that I am. It validated my existence. It validated my citizenship and said that, man, my voice counts, my vote matters, I matter.
SK: Amendment 4 sought to override Florida’s clemency process, which requires returning citizens to appeal for the restoration of their civil rights. What is wrong with this process?
DM: In Florida, four politicians decide which citizens get to vote and which don’t get to vote. That was way too much power for any politician to have, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, because they leave room for partisan politics to play a role in making that determination. The voting booth is the greatest equalizer that we have in our democracy. Yet, the governor can deny you for any reason or no reason at all. The decision to determine who has access to that is a very powerful and very important decision and it should not be arbitrary.
SK: Speaking of Amendment 4, one of the remarkable things about its passage was the broad coalition that supported it. What enabled that, despite all the partisanship in our country?
DM: The framework for building that broad coalition was making personal connections and letting love be the driving force—not fear, not anger. This allowed us to have conversations with so many folks. After the first petition for Amendment 4 came off the press, I went straight into a conservative county and approached people who I knew were conservative. I was surprised by the amount of people who were impacted by felon disenfranchisement that didn’t look like me. Driving around made me realize that there was a much broader scope of folks that were impacted. I used to try to talk to any and everybody about felon disenfranchisement. There were just so many folks who had a loved one or a good friend who was directly impacted and who could not vote because of a felony conviction.
SK: You write about working with voter psychologists to develop a message around Amendment 4 that would be most palatable to Floridians. What were some of the realizations you came to, particularly about language that would trigger racial anxiety in voters?
DM: When we first started talking about the ballot initiative, we consulted with a voter psychologist, Dr. Phyllis Watts, and she said something that stuck with me: that certain messages and images can trigger what she called a “primal response.” Jimmy Kimmel, on his late night show, went out onto the street and he asked folks how they felt about Obamacare. You had folks say, “I hate Obamacare. They need to get rid of it.” Then Jimmy would say, “What do you think about the Affordable Care Act,” and their response was, “Oh my god, I love it. We need to expand it”. That shows that when they associated something with the reported “enemy” or Black people or whatever, they were totally against it. If you reframe it, they’re totally for it. I did not want the campaign for Amendment 4 to be categorized as a Black issue or a Democrat issue.
SK: Along those lines, you suggest in your book that we racialize too many issues that aren’t uniquely racial. Why do you believe that this is the case?
DM: I think there’s blame that can be shared on both sides. On the more progressive side, race is what they magnify. Sometimes I chuckle, because there are instances, and I’ve seen it, when you have white people getting mad about something that happens to a Black person quicker than a Black person is getting mad. Part of that could be a symptom of white guilt. “I will over-exert myself to show that I’m a champion for Black people.” In doing so, it really overemphasizes race. Progressives sometimes can’t see the forest, because a tree is blocking their entire view.
On the other side, I think that racism has a lot to do with creating false racial narratives. I think racism is mainly a symptom of ignorance. Your circle informs you. It helps shape your beliefs and your ideologies. If there’s no diversity in your friend group, then you’re really looking at the world from a very limited point of view, which increases the likelihood of your comments being ignorant.
SK: There’s an interesting part in your book where you recall being asked on live TV whether you were registered as a Democrat or Republican, and you responded by saying that you wanted to shed party affiliations. Why was that important to you?
DM: It’s extremely important. Just look at the election right now, how starkly divided this country is along partisan lines—and not along values.
Our organization is focused on people with felony convictions and those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. That means that both parties have to vie for our vote, which forces them to be more civil with each other and come up with solutions that are adequate to deal with criminal justice issues.
Because of all of the sacrifices that were made to pass Amendment 4, I needed to demand that politicians put some respect on our vote. They just can’t just get it for free. “Oh, you’re a Democrat, so you got to vote Democrat.” I don’t believe that. To blindly just give your vote away is a disrespect to the efforts that were made.
I also think that part of the problem is that we only have a two-party system, which forces people to have to choose sides. In the state of Florida, if you’re not affiliated with either party, you can’t even vote in the primary. You can’t have a say in who leads our country unless you choose a side.
SK: As a voting rights activist, though, is it difficult to stay nonpartisan? I think it’s pretty well established that one party, the Republican Party, has overwhelmingly suppressed voters—particularly people of color.
DM: It’s not, Sam. When we did our campaign for Amendment 4, we were fighting just as hard for that person that wanted to vote for Donald Trump as that person that wished they could vote for Barack Obama. The reason why is because the minute your advocacy is based solely on how you think people will vote, are you really engaging in something that expands our democracy? Are you really working within the spirit of democracy? I say that you’re not.
I’m not relieving the Republican Party of any responsibility, because they do engage in that. What I’m saying is that when you have the conversation about voter suppression, then you got to be real with it. The Democratic Party is quick to say, “Oh, it’s the Republicans that are racist,” but let me tell you something: racism has no party. It doesn’t.
SK: What do you say to those who are pessimistic about where we are as a nation, that there is so much animosity and negativity in politics?
DM: Read my book (laughs).
When I was homeless, I remember this lady asked me, “What is the darkest part of the night?” I was like, “How the hell am I supposed to know that?” She ended up telling me that the darkest part of the night is right before dawn.
I do believe that in spite of all of the negativity, in spite of what is said that may depress us or anger us or scare us, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think we’ve seen it during this election. More young people showed up than ever before. First-time voters showed up. Turnout has increased. You have to celebrate that.
SK: What do you say to people who say that their vote doesn’t matter?
DM: If your vote didn’t matter, then why are there so many people trying so hard to stop you from voting?
You have to respect your vote. You respect the fact that somebody in your lineage made some type of sacrifice so you can have a better future, so you can have the opportunity to vote. When you don’t vote, it’s almost like you spit in their face and say, “You wasted your time fighting for me. You wasted your time dying for me.” You have to honor that.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.