Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens
By now, you have probably heard of Florida’s Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment placed on Florida’s referendum ballot to restore civil rights for “returning citizens” or individuals who have had various interactions with the criminal justice system and lost their civil rights due to felony convictions. There are many terms to describe people who have had that experience: “felons,” “convicts,” “criminals.” Labels have power. That is one of the many lessons that come out of Desmond Meade’s semi-autobiographical work, Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens. The book documents his journey from a homeless drug addict to a lawyer and advocate for voting rights while discussing the community and coalition work that made Amendment 4 a successful ballot initiative to amend the Florida Constitution. He attributes his message of love, forgiveness, and second chances to the campaign’s success in passing Amendment 4.
At its outset, we come face to face with Meade at his lowest point in life. He had just been released from his last and longest stint in prison. With a desire to stay out of prison, Meade had previously entered several plea deals to minor offenses, not realizing the impact they would have on future convictions and sentencing. As someone who lost his civil rights through this felony conviction, he became a fearless advocate for civil rights restoration advocacy.
Before Amendment 4, a person would lose those rights permanently unless pardoned by the governor, which was, and still is, a rare event. Meade himself was denied a pardon even after all his work on Amendment 4. Florida law is notoriously strict, listing several first-time non-violent crimes as felonies. It also had the distinction of being one of the few states that permanently denied civil rights upon felony convictions.
As the book demonstrates, these conditions led to Meade becoming passionate about restoring civil rights and ultimately becoming the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). Along with his partner, Sheena Meade, whom he credits tremendously with modernizing and streamlining the organization, he has made the FRRC a national powerhouse, winning the recognition of celebrities like John Legend and national political figures like Stacey Abrams.
Let My People Vote is an inspiration to anyone playing the long game of fighting for civil rights. To get to this point, Meade had to overcome a lack of funding and support, several setbacks, and attacks from all kinds of people. And the fight is not over; even after Amendment 4 passed with an overwhelming vote in its favor (from both sides of the political aisle), the Florida Legislature enacted a statute defining a returning citizen’s completion of a felony sentence to include resolution of fines and fees associated with the conviction. The statute was challenged as unconstitutional but was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. FRRC now has the Fines and Fees Project to continue assisting returning citizens with restoring their civil rights.