Desmond Meade stood with his wife on the National Mall on that sunny Inauguration Day, listening to a speech delivered by a president he did not vote for. But he followed attentively, hoping to hear just a few words that might address a man like himself: African-American, one-time homeless, recovered from substance abuse, and formerly incarcerated. His felony status kept him from voting for Obama, because as a Florida citizen he is not eligible to vote at all. He would leave D.C. disappointed, not only because he heard nothing about felony disenfranchisement, but he also heard nothing from Obama about the unique problems impacting black men.
“If you’re going to go out there on a limb and talk about gay rights and gun control issues, then why can’t you make mention of the plight of African-American men who are not graduating, who are dying at very young ages and being disenfranchised?” asks Meade. “As an African-American president who doesn’t have to worry about being elected again, he should have at least said something.”
Since Obama didn’t, Meade is saying something, organizing in Florida on behalf of the 1.5 million people in the state who can’t vote due to felony convictions. He’s the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, comprising more than seventy organizations, most grassroots and community-based. Florida's disenfranchised voters total more than the combined population of both North and South Dakota. Their problems long preceded Obama and are far from resolved now that he has been re-elected. At the root is Florida’s state constitution, which prevents those with felony convictions from voting, holding office and in certain instances, even obtaining housing.
In addition, Gov. Rick Scott, the Tea Party’s golden neck charm, has rolled back reforms implemented by his predecessor Charlie Crist—reforms that restored voting rights for hundreds of thousands of former felons.
Felony disenfranchisement was far from the only voter problem suffered in Florida. The state’s electoral maladies in the last year read like a primer on how to best frustrate voters. They began with the passing of House Bill 1355, which among other things made voter registration drives prohibitively toilsome and which performed unnecessary surgery on the early voting period, including excising the “Souls to the Polls Sunday” that attracted legions of black voters in 2008. Come election day, long lines left elderly and disabled voters waiting up to five hours to vote in oven-like temperatures while overzealous poll watchers tried to block volunteers from giving them water.
But just as voter suppression schemes backfired on conservatives by provoking voters of color to turn out en masse, the totally avoidable problems caused by bad voter laws gifted voting rights activists with more momentum, more political capital and even a mandate to continue organizing in 2013. Today, Florida advocates are drawing up legislation that would establish a new bill of rights around voting for the state, mostly in response to the suppression.
“There have been so many shenanigans in Florida forever,” says Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority. “But now there is a real appetite for getting rid of the bad election policies and making permanent structural changes, looking at how the structure of voter suppression was racial, and then shifting the paradigm from conversations around voter fraud to establishing the right to vote as a fundamental right.”