Florida voters will soon have the chance to abolish the state’s archaic, unconstitutional civil rights restoration process

Restorative measures

Sheena Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition
Sheena Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Photo by Joey Roulette

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click to enlarge Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition - Photo by Joey Roulette
Photo by Joey Roulette
Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

Volunteers circulated petitions at house parties, in parking lots, at festivals and campaign rallies, from Jacksonville to Miami. In the last few months leading up to the Florida Division of Elections' deadline, the American Civil Liberties Union pledged $5 million to the campaign, the organization's largest investment in a cause in its nearly 100-year history. In November, at a Jay-Z concert at the Amway Center in Orlando, Chicago rapper and opener Vic Mensa dedicated his performance to the campaign and urged fans to sign petitions circulating during intermission. Lady Gaga offered the same show of support at her November concert in Tampa. And Grammy award-winning artist and activist John Legend has raised the profile of the coalition's efforts on social media, tweeting regularly about voting rights and releasing videos as part of a national criminal justice-focused campaign, called Free America.

The coalition estimates a quarter of the petitions gathered came from volunteers, many of whom were ineligible to sign the forms themselves because of their status as convicted felons.

"The way that we did it really reflects what's great about this country," says FRRC executive director Desmond Meade, who notes that petitions are still coming into the office. "When you talk about regular everyday citizens from all walks of life; all races; all political perspectives that came together and recognize that Florida has a broken system and that we need to get in line with the rest of the country."

Come November, 60 percent of Florida voters will need to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment in November in order for it to pass. Up until then, the coalition is focusing on educating voters about what life looks like for formerly convicted felons in Florida. It is a life of stigma. It is a life of difficulties finding employment, obtaining a loan, and finding housing. For Meade, it is having a law degree but being prohibited from applying to the Florida Bar because of drug charges from the 1990s.

Meade, newly hired staff and volunteers will center the campaign on forgiveness and redemption, humanizing the 10 percent of the state's voting-age population who cannot vote. The coalition will also draw from the success of past constitutional amendment campaigns, including the most recent push to bring medical marijuana dispensaries to the state. If successful, automatic rights restoration could spur grass-roots campaigns in Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky, prompting reconsideration of the clemency process there.

But first things first, says Meade: Celebrate that history's already been made.

Meanwhile, the state will continue to fight in court to justify and preserve what Judge Walker called its "alarming, unconstitutional" clemency process.

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