Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on restoring ex-felons' voting rights

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PHOTO BY ERIK HERSMAN/FLICKR
  • Photo by Erik Hersman/Flickr
For some, Desmond Meade is the epitome of convicted felons who've turned their lives around.

The onetime drug addict, who was homeless after being released from prison in 2004, has a law degree and devoted much of the past five years in helping others.

But Meade, 49, still suffers from a condition that keeps him, in his words, "from being whole again."

He can't vote.

Meade watched Monday as the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on the "Voting Restoration Amendment," a proposed constitutional amendment that would give voting rights to convicted felons like the Orlando resident.

Meade is the chairman of "Floridians for a Fair Democracy," the political committee backing the ballot initiative, also endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"It's a cloak of shame," Meade said after Monday's arguments, referring to the inability to vote. "To be constantly reminded, especially during election season, that yes, you're good enough to be successful. You're good overcome obstacles. But you're not good enough to have your voice heard."

The "Voter Restoration Amendment" would automatically restore voting rights for all nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Felons convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, would not be eligible. The amendment would go on next year's ballot, if the Supreme Court approves the wording and supporters can gather enough signatures before the February 2018 deadline.

The Supreme Court will decide whether the proposal meets the constitutional "single-subject" requirement and is not confusing or misleading to voters, something lawyer Jon Mills, representing the committee backing the plan, said is an easy call.

"This initiative is rather narrow. It actually simply provides that it restores the right to vote to individuals with felony convictions, excluding convictions for murder and felony sexual offenses," said Mills, a constitutional law professor and former state House speaker.

If the Supreme Court clears the proposal, supporters still have to submit about 766,000 petition signatures to get it on the 2018 ballot, an often expensive and labor-intensive effort.

Meade said his group had relied solely on volunteers to obtain more than 70,000 petitions that triggered the high court review.

"The level of energy around this, because of the organic and grassroots nature and how it's based on fairness, that has energized people around the state," Meade told reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court after Monday's hearing.

Florida is one of a handful of states that require action by the governor or courts before felons who have completed their sentences can have rights restored, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to an analysis by the Legislature's economists, the constitutional change —- if approved —- could open up voting rights for more than 700,000 Floridians, although fewer than 300,000 could be expected to apply, at least initially.

For Meade, the attention over the petition has injected a new enthusiasm into his failed bid to have his rights restored, which he abandoned as a result of new requirements imposed by Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi who —- with the blessing of the other members of the Florida Cabinet —- changed the process shortly after taking office in 2011.

Meade, who originally applied to have his rights restored in 2006, got caught up in a backlog of thousands of others eager to take advantage of changes authorized by former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet.

But the process took so long that, by the time Meade's application was examined, he was no longer eligible for the quasi-automatic restoration of civil rights, which include the right to vote.

By then, the new system instituted in 2011 required felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to wait a minimum of five years to have their rights restored. Others could wait up to 10 years before being eligible to apply.

Since the changes went into effect, just a fraction of the more than 100,000 former felons who sought to have their rights restored were successful.

Meade, originally convicted of drug crimes and, later, of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm, received a letter the same year the 2011 changes went into effect telling him he had to wait at least another year to petition to have his rights restored —- more than five years after he had first applied.

He said he abandoned his effort and instead focused his efforts on revamping the system, pointing out that some people have waited more than a decade just for a hearing to have their rights restored.

"We know that the vetting of the applications could take upwards of 10 years and even then the decision of whether to restore someone's civil rights is purely arbitrary and you can get denied for no reason at all," Meade said. "It was really discouraging, so when I looked at it with my options, I knew that a better option would be to change current policies."

Meade earned a law degree from Florida International University in 2014 but is unable to apply for a license to practice law until he has his rights restored.

While he called his situation discouraging, Meade said he hasn't given up on the effort because of the stories he's heard traveling around the state drumming up support for the constitutional proposal, including the tale of an elderly man whose rights were restored but who died just months before he could vote in the 2012 election.

"Those stories really gave me energy and really strengthened my resolve to try to do something about it. We knew the system was outdated and something had to change," said Meade, who works for the Live Free Campaign, which focuses on gun violence and reducing incarceration levels.

Bondi's office, which represents the state during arguments about proposed constitutional amendments, is not objecting to the proposed amendment at the Supreme Court —- a sharp turnaround from the attorney general's role in the lengthy timeframes now imposed on felons seeking the right to vote.

Bondi and other backers of the current process have argued that the restoration of voting rights for felons should be earned and only after a sufficient waiting period. She recently told reporters she would consider revisiting the system to allow felons to apply to have their rights restored after three years, instead of five.

But Meade rejected that option.

"This is rooted in fairness. Once a person has served their time, has paid their debt to society, they should be given the ability to have their voices heard. Over 95 percent of the country agrees with this, but Florida is an outlier. This is an effort to really get Florida in line with what's going on across the country," he said.

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