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  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Desmond Meade

Voting rights leader | For fighting to restore the vote to ex-cons

In November, Desmond Meade led a movement that persuaded Floridians to vote in favor of enfranchising the largest number of people since the women's suffrage movement and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three months later, the role he played in getting the right to vote back for about 1.5 million formerly convicted felons still hasn't quite sunk in.

"It was an honor and privilege for me to be able to be involved in such a historic win with Amendment 4," he says.

Meade, 51, is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – one of several groups that targeted a draconian state law with racist roots in the Jim Crow era that barred people who've completed their felony sentences from voting. Meade's work began one day in August 2005 when he stood in front of railroad tracks in South Florida, ready to hurl himself in front of the next oncoming train. He was homeless, addicted to drugs and recently released from prison after serving time for a felony conviction.

"I didn't have any hope or self-esteem," he says. "The train didn't come that day, so I crossed those tracks and checked myself into drug treatment."

After completing his treatment, he went back to school, eventually getting his law degree from Florida International University. But he couldn't apply to the Florida Bar until his rights had been restored, or even vote for his wife, Sheena Meade, when she ran for the Florida House.

Determined to help others, Meade knocked on doors, collected petitions and became one of the driving forces behind putting Amendment 4 on the ballot. On Nov. 6, the amendment won close to 65 percent of the electorate with about 5.1 million votes – more than any candidate on the ballot.

On Jan. 8, Meade's teenage daughter Xcellence helped him fill out his voter registration form at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office among cheers as other returning citizens also registered to vote.

"People in Florida and the rest of the country got to witness love winning the day for once in this election," he says. "And that's something that I will hold onto for the rest of my life."

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