Award-winning singer, songwriter and actor John Legend, along with the founders of the Orlando-based Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, gave students at Maynard Evans High School a lesson on Wednesday: the most important part of a democracy is the right to vote.
FRRC hosted Legend in Pine Hills for a lively get-out-the-vote event promoting Amendment 4, an initiative on the ballot in November that aims to enfranchise about 1.5 million Floridians whose felony convictions stripped them their right to vote.
“The civil rights movement had Harry Belafonte, today we got Mr. John Legend," Desmond Meade, FRRC's president said at a press conference. Meade, a former addict once convicted of firearm and drug possession in 2001, led a statewide, grassroots movement last year to gather the 766,200 signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot. By January 2018, they got nearly 1 million.
"Right now, we are a shining light," Meade said. "What you see in this campaign is a shining example of what we as citizens can do when we collectively come together across all lines."
Meade and his wife Sheena joined Legend and Niel Volz, the organization's political affairs director, on a stage in Maynard Evans' auditorium before roughly 1,000 high school students. The crowd was enraptured when the EGOT winner sat center-stage with a grand piano
to sing chart-topping songs like All Of Me.
Other than his musical performance, Legend sang a different message into the minds of high school students, many whom personally know convicted felons bared from voting.
"What I realize is these are our family members. These are our community members," Legend said. "If they're going to be affected by the laws that our representatives make, why shouldn't they have a say in who's writing these laws and who's representing us in our government?"
Florida is one of three states in the country that prohibits felons from voting, and it has the largest number
of disenfranchised returning citizens — 48 percent of the 6.1 million are in the Sunshine State. And 21 percent of Florida's African American population have lost their right to vote because of their criminal record.
Meade added, "What are you willing to do for that love one who doesn't have a voice. Are you willing to be their voice?"
Legend's message resonated with Maynard Evans student Andrew Morales, 16, whose cousin can't vote due to a past felony conviction. "I think it's important that he should be able to vote," Morales said in an interview. "He owns his own business, he helps out in the community, so I think it's important for people like that."
"He did mess up, but he should get a second chance," Semaj Henderson, 15, added.
Holding the rally at a Pine Hills high school emphasizes that mobilizing young voters and schooling minors on the importance of future elections is a key factor in the push to pass Amendment 4 — which is what Morales said was paramount to the event. "I think its to get out the vote. Not a lot of people voted. Like [Sheena Meade] said, only 26 percent of 18 to 26 year olds vote."
Currently, former felons can apply to get their voting rights back five years after they've completed their sentence. But the process for applying for clemency with the state's Board of Executive Clemency can take years, and many become discouraged enough to give up. Reverend Larry Hopkins, however, persisted for clemency after a felony conviction from decades ago for possessing crack cocaine. His right to vote was restored, but contends the system is unconstitutional.
"I started my process to get my rights back through at least three governors. Chiles, Buddy MacKay and Jeb Bush," Hopkins said during an amendment forum Wednesday night at the New Life Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, a few minutes away from Maynard Evans High School.
"The Florida system of restoring voter rights to people who've committed crimes is riddled with discrimination and bias including bias in favor of a political party," Hopkins added. "And to me, it violates my constitutional rights."
Unlike candidates running for office, ballot initiatives like Amendment 4 require a 60 percent majority to pass — a feat Meade isn't losing sleep over. About 74 percent of likely voters in Florida said they would vote "Yes" on the amendment, according to an EMC/North Star poll on Sept. 28.
John Legend, who launched a rights restoration campaign
of his own, is confident the amendment will pass. "Hopefully we'll see some major change happen in Florida in November," he said on Wednesday.
"And if it does pass, it will be historic. 1.5 million people getting their voting rights back will mean something bigger than anything that's happened in voting rights since the civil rights era."
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