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Opinion

Democracy Works: The soul of democracy

Desmond Meade
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel
/
Sipa USA
Desmond Meade

As we've heard from Carol Anderson and others on this show, the fight for voting rights often breaks down along racial and partisan lines. Desmond Meade saw that as a problem and set out to change it by channeling our shared sense of humanity and the common good to push for change.

Meade is a formerly homeless returning citizen who overcame many obstacles to eventually become the President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. He led the FRRC to a historic victory in 2018 with the successful passage of Amendment 4, a grassroots citizen’s initiative which restored voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions.

He is a 2021 MacArthur Fellow — a recipient of the organization's prestigious genius grant — and was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2019. He received the 2021 Brown Democracy Medal from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State.

Episode Transcript
Chris Beem
From McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. This week. Our guest is Desmond Meade, who is executive director of the Florida rights restoration coalition, author of the books let my people vote my battle to restore civil rights of returning citizens, and America's disenfranchised how restoring their vote can save the soul of our democracy. Desmond is also the recipient of the McCourtney Institute's 2021, Brown Democracy medal. And Chris, we had the chance to meet him recently, when he came to campus to accept the medal and present a lecture on his work.

Chris Beem
Sometimes in doing these podcasts we meet people who are just extraordinary people and desperately want meat is one of them. I mean, leave aside for moments, the, you know, his really amazing work were on on the rights restoration in Florida and just focus on him as a human being, you know, he was an addict, a felon, had not anything but the clothes on his back and was, you know, talks in the first book quite a bit about how he was just waiting for a train to come by. So he could just ended his life. And he didn't. And he checked himself into rehab. And then he started Community College, and then he went to law school. And now he's, he just won a MacArthur Genius Grant and had all his civil rights restored. It's just an amazing story. And it makes me think about how I react when I see homeless people. And it makes me think about how I react, you know, when I hear about someone's addiction, and, you know, he really forces you to recognize that there's a human being there and an enormous amount of potential. And, and so that's kind of where I start with him. And then, after all, that, you have the the Florida rights restoration coalition that he leads, and which led to this really breakthrough a moment in American history for the ex felons in Florida.

Candis Watts Smith 
I think what is so important about Desmond Meade's message is that we have to put the humanity back into the center of democracy. And he's really interested in improving democracy for everyone, despite your ideological, your policy preferences, that everybody should get a say, and, you know, just on that alone, doesn't meet as a bigger person than I ever will be.

Jenna Spinelle
So I think it's just worth taking a second here to say this, it doesn't come up directly in the interview. But Desmond was the leader of the amendment four campaign in Florida, which was a ballot initiative in 2018. That restored voting rights to more than a million people in Florida that had prior felony convictions. So we talk about how some of the things that that the legislature has done in response to that, but just to kind of put that out there when we're talking about the the gravity of Desmond's work. And this really this coalition that he built to pass this initiative with broad support something like 65% of the vote in you know, what we know, is a very divided state in in many respects,

Chris Beem
And I think, you know, there are there are two things that need to be pointed out one, yes, 65% is a I think that's right. And, and 65%. In Florida, I think you'd have trouble getting that many to agree to the color of the sky, right? This is an amazing achievement. The other thing is that he's not talking about something that I think most people are just initially and immediately sympathetic to, you know, I think most people say, Well, if people were felons say, you know, that's part of the price of of breaking the law, and, you know, if they want to get it, get it back, they have to go through this, all these hoops, because otherwise it's, you know, they that this is something they deserve. Now, I'm not saying that everyone thinks that but I think it is a just a tough initiative to get past under any circumstances and in any state. And yet, Desmond Mead did it and did it in in Florida. And, and I think that is just I mean, obviously, he was the leader of this large coalition, and involve thousands of volunteers. But, you know, he was the leader, he was that he was the face for this initiative. And, and it is just really an incredible achievement.

Candis Watts Smith 
But one of the things that this kind of initiative does is to call into question our common sense around that. And also to help us remember where these policies came from in the first place. And felony disenfranchisement policies were not inevitable, they were enacted as a kind of way to get around with the Constitution allowed in regards to who could be banned from the ballot. And, you know, they came up after Reconstruction was over in order to prevent, you know, formerly enslaved people from voting. So you know, now over the century and a half, it has become common sense that policy has telegraphed the message that people who are in prison or formerly in prison don't deserve all of their rights. But it could have been different. And what we're seeing now in Florida, and California and Virginia, in New York, and Iowa and DC, is that people are starting to recognize that it could be different, and it should be different. So, you know, it's it's really, this is, I guess, one of the places where we see where people see that we we could expand the franchise. And people are people are grabbing on a whole to that. But also, you know, I think he makes it really clear that when we take care of the least of us, we take care of everybody. Yeah. And, you know, he says if we can ensure the rights of the most marginalized people, that means that everyone is going to have more rights.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, I think that that is a good place to transition to the interview. Let's hear from Desmond, let's hear about some of these ideas about humanity and all of these things that we've just been discussing. Let's go now to the interview with Desmond Meade.

Jenna Spinelle
Desmond Meade, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Desmond Meade

Thank you for having me, Jana, it's a pleasure being here.

Jenna Spinelle
So in reading over your new essay on America's disenfranchised, why restoring their vote can save the soul of our democracy, you start that off by talking about your process of threading the needle between law, criminal justice and democracy. And I think a lot of people just as you say, don't really think about the connection between the three of those things. So can you just start off by telling us how you threaded that needle or how you have threaded it over the course of your work with the Florida rights restoration coalition?

Desmond Meade
Well, thank you for that question. You know, I think that, you know, it's probably more about finding that through line, you know, I learned that when I was practicing for TED talk about what is that through line that connects to many different things. And I look at that through Lynas, humanity, right. And so when, you know, and that's causing me to really even just question about, you know, how politicized we've made things, and that voting in democracy is actually less political than we make it out to be. And it's more about, I would say, like humanity, right, how we care how we view each other, how do we care about each other? You know, and what do we expect from each other as far as a society or group of people that have made some type of assertion that we do want to live together? Right, no one wants to be an island. And so when I was engaged in the work, you know, at first, it seems about, it's all about just getting voting rights back to people who have previous felony convictions. But it was a much it was a much deeper conversation when you go into criminal justice, or it's all about getting criminals off the street are fighting crime or whatever. But no, it was a deeper discussion about how we're treating people. And what what, like, the type of things that we're making crimes and and then how we're punishing folks for so called violating these, these laws or statutes that we created. And then how do we treat these people after they've served their time and at the end of the day, with like, the people who we deal with ever relates to criminal justice are the same people who we're dealing with when it relates to felon disenfranchisement. And the problem was, was that we were looking at them as people first, right? We're looking at them as either criminals or x criminals, and not as someone's father, someone's brother's sister or mother. Right and not saying to him anity in them. And then if we're able to see the humanity in individuals who commit crimes, or people who are trying to have access to democracy, if we're able to look at them through the lens of them being human beings first and part of our society, then that changes our approach to implementing criminal justice policies, he changes our approach, or our resistance, and then people vote because I mean, there's even debate now, even in the left about whether or not people should be able to vote in prison. Right? And the reality is, is that when you stop and think about it, people should never lose the right to vote. Right voting is like one of the clearest indicators of citizenship. And, you know, I think about like, my sons, I have four sons. And anybody who have sons will tell you that they're going to do some type of boneheaded things. It's at some point, actually, at multiple points, right? And there are times when you just want to grab them, like, What the heck are you doing? What do you think it, but that no point whatsoever? Do my son Stop being my sons? And I don't think that American citizen should ever lose citizenship? Because they made a mistake. Right? But so they're still at debate about whether you should vote in prison? Or should you wait till after you complete your sentence? At the end of the day, you know, it's about how will we view any function, and if we view the folks, in light of them being a criminal, or someone that's, that's done something wrong, and should not be a part of our society? That's kind of I think it's different than, you know, if we were to actually view them more in a more personal way, and look, and really recognize their humanity and know that they are part of our family.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. So the other thing that's sort of tied up in in all of this in in partisanship in politics, and even what you were saying, the notion of humanity is, is the notion of power. And there's there's a certain dimension of voting of politics that is inextricably about power, who has it? Who doesn't? Who gets it? Who doesn't? So how have you grappled with that in your work and trying to balance power with with humanity?

Desmond Meade
You know, the thing about what I believe power is not is not partisan. Right. And and, and I say that because, you know, when I think about even, you know, when we talk about felon disenfranchisement, and, you know, we've seen it, we've seen this resurgence in this country during the Reconstruction Era. And it was specifically used as a tool to diminish the newfound political power of the newly released enslaved people in this country. During that time, I mean, my people, my ancestors that were hung and murdered and bitten by dogs, that was being done by Dixie Democrats, you know, and a lot of folks look at okay, now that the whole situation was about stopping the newly freed people from being able to vote, or have the political power, I looked at it as something deeper, and that was in the front against democracy. And, and so I think that our democracy is being attacked by both sides, right? Because at the end of the day, it's about who has that power, just like you said. And so how we approach diminishing that power, right? I think Dick dictates that we have a clearer understanding of who it is that's trying to get it. And if we think that we only need to look at the left only need to look at the right, we're going to be off base, and we're never going to be able to diminish that know the power of the people who currently just really try to minimize who gets to participate. And we don't we see this in in redistricting. Right. And that's something that's a big topic today, because of, you know, the balance of power in DC. But redistricting has always been a tool that was used by both sides to select its folders, right. And that's something that's inherently wrong with the system. Because it it feeds into this, you know, I have power and I should use that power to minimize who else can get power.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, and that was also a key part of how you organize the amendment for a campaign, right? It wasn't necessarily about the outcome of which party, is this going to benefit? It was about how is this going to help humanity has as you said earlier,

Desmond Meade
Yeah, it was a deep, it was a deeper goal. It wasn't about turning Florida Blue. I gotta tell folks, and I used to tell him that listen, we don't need another blue state or another red state. What we need is the United States. Right? And, you know, at the end of the day, we were fighting just as hard for that person that wanted to vote for Donald Trump. We were for the person who wish they could have voted for a President Barack Obama. And so it because I do believe that if you're really a champion of democracy, then you're not going to be selective on who you fighting for, right. And we're not just going to be fighting for people that look like us, or think like us, or people who we hope vote like us, right. And sadly, we do have pockets of people that do that their motivation for championing certain voting rights of causes are based on their belief that if they're able to get these people their right to vote back, that is going to mean more people on their side, and they're gonna get to advance their agenda. That is not advancing democracy. You know, that's actually, I think, advanced and tribal isms, something of that nature. I do believe that, you know, the true north is about really believing that our society becomes better, our democracy becomes more vibrant, when more people participate, even if they disagree with us, and being willing to live with the fact that you know, what, there might be more people who believe something other than what I believe, and I'm still okay with that. Right. And what I should be happy about is that everybody had the opportunity to weigh in, and I think that's most important.

Jenna Spinelle
And how have you shared that message with with other people who are organizing campaigns, not just just felon disenfranchisement, I guess, in in the broader world of what we think of as democracy reform or, you know, voting rights reform? How does that message go over?

Desmond Meade
You know, sometimes some folks find it hard to digest. But the reality is, I don't care what the issue is that you're working on. Right? The thing is, we politicize too, too much too many issues, right? It should not be a political question about whether or not a child deserves to have clean drinking water. That that is not that should not be a political question. And sometimes we are, you know, we instigate the politicization of issues, just by how we even launching, right for instance, you know, if there's a certain issue that that you're passionate about, and you want them to change, and then you launch a campaign, and you say, Well, this is a progressive campaign about, you know, why are you putting that, like, label there? Right? Because many you came out saying that this was a progressive campaign, you already drew some lines, you already say, Okay, we're going to war with some conservative. You know, one of the things with our campaign was that people, you know, constantly used to try to characterize that campaign as a bipartisan campaign. And I used to just like, reject, I'm like, No, we're not, no, we're not. And they were like, Okay, I'm sorry, what I meant was you, you have a non partisan campaign. And I was soundly reject that notion to, and I will tell him that what we have we were was a organic grassroots movement that welcomed and enjoyed bipartisan support. And the differences is that we didn't leave with the politics, we lead with the people. Right. And that's advice I give a lot of different activist organizations, right is that don't, don't try so hard to leave with the politics, especially when the issues that we're talking about are basic human rights issues. Because once you leave with the politics, then you automatically limit who you can talk to, or who can engage in conversations with you about it. And so you have to cast a much broader net, right, and then you're able to bring in conservatives, you're able to bring in independents, that would really would much rather have a conversation about human rights and political ideology.

Jenna Spinelle
So there's also I think, wrapped up in this and you I think, heard this in your your work on the campaign, this notion of all my vote doesn't matter. And that's, I mean, putting aside the question of disenfranchisement, I think even for people who can vote, there's this sense that my vote isn't going to count for anything. So how did how did you combat some of those those types of messages as you were out trying to garner support for the for your amendment?

Desmond Meade
Well, you know, prior to launching the amendment, you know, I was engaged in a lot of GOTV and photo registration efforts in Florida. And I used to hear that a lot. And you know, what surprised me? Because typically they are tell you don't argue with people just keep it going because you're trying to meet your quotas. But I just couldn't, you know, I couldn't follow orders. And one day, I just decided to go back and engage the person that just told me that, you know, their vote didn't count or didn't know didn't matter. And by the second question, I was able to To determine that that person couldn't even vote to begin with, right, and what I found was that a lot of those messages around not voting, were coming from people who either thought that they could not vote, or really legitimately could not actually vote because of a prior felony conviction. And, you know, I instantly related to them, you know, because, you know, when I was released from prison, and someone approached me about voting, and I knew I couldn't vote, it was like a slap in the face, reminding me that I'm not part of the society again. And that's very hurtful, because I mean, deep down inside, we, we do want to be a part of something, right? We want to be loved, and we want to be able to love and to be reminded that, listen, you're no good, that you're not a part of our group, you know, and you'll never be a part of our group, it's so hurtful that we would actually suppress that, that hurt by masking it with an indifference, right. And so when something bothers us, what we do with that, we diminish the value of the thing that bothers us. And so what we what I was saying was, people talking about, their vote didn't matter didn't matter who got in office and all that, to hide or mask, the fact that or the pain from not being a part of something, and then those other folks, you know, you know, I would run into one of the things I was really getting away this lesson, if you vote didn't matter, then why are people trying so hard, uses so much resources to stop you from voting. So obviously, there's some value in that right? That, you know, you may have something in your home, and you might think it's worthless, but everybody that comes to your house is offering to buy it off your hand, you're going to start trying to wonder why is this thing so valuable? And you're going to do your research and, and then you eventually discover what what gives that thing value. And what gives, you know, your vote value is that it does have the power to change things. And you know, and I tell people at the voting booth is the ultimate equalizer in our democracy. Because no matter how rich you are, you know, you have just as much power as Bill Gates, and you have just as much power as the President of the United States, because it's one person, one vote. And when we use it, especially collectively, we see good things happen.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. And on that point about keeping that that fight alive. I know that the Florida Legislature has made it seemingly as as hard as they could for everyone who's whose rights you fought for with with the amendment to actually exercise that that right to vote, adding fines, and perhaps other things. Give give us an update on where things stand now and how your organization is coming up with solutions to help the folks that you serve?

Desmond Meade
Yes. So we know after we pass amendment four, which I have to say was a beautiful moment. One of the things I love most about passing of amendment for was that we were able to bring together people from all walks of life, all political persuasions, to actually pass this amendment, you know, over a million people who voted for amendment for Republicans. And we actually had a million more votes than any candidate that ran for governor. But the most beautiful part about that was so 5.1 million people who voted for me before I looked at those votes, and I didn't see votes that was based on hate affair. Rather, I seen votes that was based on forgiveness and redemption. And we, I believe, we showed the world that love can in fact win the day that we don't have to tear each other down, demonize each other in order to advance some, some sound policy reforms, right. But immediately after that beautiful moment, the legislature got involved. And anytime you bring politics into something, it becomes ugly. And they basically determined that they had the arrogance to believe that only politicians only, you know, the state officials had the wherewithal to know how to properly implement amendment four, and they came up with a statute that basically required the payment of fines and fees before a person could would be able to register the vote. Our response to that was not to engage with the folks on the political level, but to seek a much higher more or more high ground and know our approaches and listen this take this obstacle and turn it into opportunity. We were able to raise over $27 million from over 90,000 people throughout the country and help people pay off their fines or fees because you know, at its core, we believe that you know No one should ever be forced to choose between putting food on their table or being able to vote right. And while raising this money is something incredible happened, right? Not only were we able to expand democracy to a lot of people in Florida, but the process in doing so made our organization the largest contributor to Florida's economy, from a nonprofit organization where we infused over $27 million into Florida's economy, which ended up not only creating a more inclusive democracy, but we were saving people's jobs. Right, there were people who worked for the court systems and, and public defenders, who are getting ready to get laid off or furloughed, because of the impact of the COVID pandemic. And but because of our efforts, they were able to maintain their jobs, we were able to save taxpayers dollars. And to me, that created a much a impactful narrative because the very same people who were what's the most despised in that state happened to be the people that was the biggest champions of that state during the COVID pandemic. So we saved people's jobs, taxpayers dollars, we distributed over me and mask throughout the state in different prisons and jails and homeless shelters and Supervisor of Elections Office, over 500,000 ounces of sanitizers that we were able to distribute, you know, and I'm talking from Key West to Pensacola, and all points in between, and there was no other organization that that stepped up like that in Florida. And it helps shift the narrative and it helps show two things. Number one, that when we fight for the lowest among us, right, everybody benefits from that. And it also shows that, that we're not these monsters that no previous narratives would, would make us out to be that we are human beings that we are part of society, and we want to contribute to society. Trust me, the overwhelming majority of people with felony convictions are not they, when they were kids, it was like, when I grew up, I want to be a criminal or whatever, then no, and even after they've been incarcerated, you know, we're not in jail or prison, saying, Man, I can't wait to get out. So I could go back to prison, right, that we were regular human beings that we have dreams and desires. And we want to, you know, be able to enjoy life, liberty and happiness and be able to pursue happiness. And it showed the humanity in us and so that, yes, we can be contributing members of society. And so that was a moment that was created because the legislation wanted to create obstacles, and we were not gonna let that deter us

Jenna Spinelle
Such a positive, positive message. And I think that, you know, a lot of people working in various aspects of politics could could take, take a lesson from that about, you know, turning obstacles into opportunities. Well, I think that is a perfect place to end things. Desmond Meade, thank you so much for joining us.

Chris Beem
Alright, so, I think that interview is confirmation to you that that this is a human being worth listening to. I wanted to just start by talking about what he said about how this moment when, when the amendment for passed, and passed, so resoundingly, and what a moment of triumph and celebration that was, and then almost immediately, the Florida legislature came in and said, Well, fine, you know, you can get the right to vote, but you have to pay back all the fees and fines. And so even 100, hundreds of dollars is is a bridge too far. But they said, Yeah, go ahead. As soon as you get all this paid off, then you'll get your rights back. And so, you know, there's something fundamentally disheartening about that. However, desmin immediately goes to the fact that people all over the nation and I think all over the world, donated to a fun that the F RRC created to pay back these fines. And after whatever it is a couple years, they've collected $27 million. Now, I could, and I actually do have this very cynical reaction that this, you know, allows the legislature to have their cake and eat it too. You know, on the one hand, they they're saying they're keeping these people off the rolls who they're worried are going to vote democratic. And if they do get in, the only way they get in is to get free money. into the into the state coffers and $27 million is not not nothing. And and so I, you know, I, you know, there is this, that is evidence to me of this pretty basic question I have about my own innate cynicism about the political process and about political players, and his basic political strategy of appealing to our common humanity.

Candis Watts Smith 
So, two things, one, I think that we have to keep in mind that, you know, like, talk about love and humanity, I do. On its surface, it seems like kind of whimsical, but, you know, like, Martin Luther King, Jr. was also in that camp. And he talked about loving your common citizen and doing the right thing for humanity. But I think maybe on a, maybe on a more kind of nuts and bolts level, is that we also need to keep in mind that, you know, democracy has several components. One is voting. And then, you know, we have like, elites, and what Mr. Meade was able to bring together is voters, regular citizens who want it to do something different. And then we have elites. And our, you know, the, the way that our democracy runs, so called democracy runs, I guess, is with a lot of institutional mechanisms that serves to exclude people like Desmond Meade from coming to the forefront, as political candidates, and as political representatives. And so some of the things I'm thinking about are campaign finance, which he talks about gerrymandering, even just the ability to get third parties on the ballot. And so we might have a different set of representatives and state legislators and in Congress, if we had a different set of rules. So I hear what you're saying, Chris. But I also think it's important for us to keep in mind that there are millions of citizens who would have it be different if we had a different system if we had a better system of accountability.

Chris Beem
Yeah, I mean, this is an argument that you and I have had before that, you know, you are a lot more hopeful about the initiative, the ability of the people to over run the the the entrenched interests of the elite. And you know, I hope you're right, I,

Candis Watts Smith 

but but this but a minute for shows that I understand that I'm just one by only 18,000 votes, for one by like a million.

Chris Beem
Right, right. No, I get it. And

Candis Watts Smith 
The people did what they were supposed to do the right thing?

Chris Beem
No, absolutely. And this was a voter initiative. Right. And so it's only you know, in states where there is the opportunity for voter initiatives, this is the kind of thing that that can happen. I think it's harder to come up with a agreement on like, I don't know, rank choice voting or something, but anything's possible. But what I would, what I would want to not lose sight of, I guess, is there's not a person like us who, who focuses on politics in the United States right now, who isn't concerned about polarization, negative partisanship, tribalism, and everybody comes up with these ways of addressing it. And his argument at bottom is, it is a strategy for addressing that problem. And his strategy is to cut it off at the knees and say, You are not a Republican or a Democrat. You are a human being just like me. And if you see your identity as being caught up or overwhelmed by partisanship, then that's not just bad. It's it's inaccurate. You are more than that, as am I and that which unites us, our humanity is far more important than this. And and again, my first reaction is Oh, come on, you know, that's, that's that's not gonna work. But it did work. It did work. And so you know, you got to take I have to take that seriously.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, he reminds me A lot of like William Barber, right? Yes, let's bring morality back into politics and let's do the right thing. And you know, not like the partisan thing. He pushes us to think about who should be able to vote? And why? Why do we think that some people are more worthy than others? Yeah, I mean, so again, our kind of, we have, it seems like with these rigid ideas about the things that, you know, the voting age is to be 21. And now it's 18. It could be something different. It used to be that non citizen males, but citizen women had different voting rights, and now that's flipped. So none of the things that we do concerning voting are are inevitable. And that, you know, on some level, we do have to kind of think through what, who, who should be able to and who should have a say, who should be belonging, and are in our society. And, you know, I think that one of the things that he points out is voting as a cornerstone of belonging in society. So I just, I'm really, at the beginning of this episode, we were trying to take a better idea how long it would take us to get to the dark side. I just don't think I can do it today.

Chris Beem
I really kind of like there's a little part of me that wants to disagree with you, Candis. I really do just want to say eyes is nonsense. This is never gonna work, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I can't, I can't, so I'm not going to I'm gonna stop fighting it. I'm on. I'm on the Peace Train. So thanks again to Desmond for his trip to to happy valley and for all his work. Thanks, Jennifer. A great interview. I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith. For Democracy Works, thanks for listening.