Nearly 6.1 million American citizens can’t legally vote. They’re denied this right because they are felons. Although this may not seem like a terribly large number in a country that has more than 320 million inhabitants, it is a figure that is steadily increasing — and it has been for the last several decades.
In 1976, for example, the number of disenfranchised was just 1.17 million.
At a casual glance, it seems that this story is a simple one. One where people who commit a specific crime all lose specific privileges. One where the number of disenfranchised simply mirrors the increasing prison population across the U.S. But this is far from the truth.
To begin with, felon voting laws vary from state to state. This means that some people who committed first degree murder are allowed to vote, while some people who lied under oath are not. The issue is further complicated by disparities in sentencing. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes, there is a disparate treatment of minority individuals at every stage of the criminal justice system. “Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts in some jurisdictions,” they write. And they conclude by arguing that these disparities make felony voting laws racist and discriminatory.
Notably, this discrimination was anticipated and, in some cases, it is even welcomed. In particular, when Alabama was framing its constitution in 1901, it included voting restrictions for previously incarcerated individuals. At the time, convention president John B. Knox noted that the aim was, "within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state,” and he clarified that this white supremacy “must [be established] by law – not by force or fraud."
Desmond Meade perceived this injustice, and he decided to act.
Meade is a lawyer who earned his law degree from Florida International University in 2014; however, because of previous drug charges, he is also a felon. Since Florida has felony voting laws, this means that Desmond can’t vote. Or at least, he couldn’t.
Meade became president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and he focused his efforts on securing a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to U.S. citizens living in Florida with felonies. That's some 1.4 million people.
It was called Amendment 4, and it needed 60% of the vote to pass. In November of 2018, it received 65%. It was the largest expansion of voting rights in half a century, and it happened because of Meade.
Regardless of how individuals may feel about felon voting rights, the story is a notable one in that it highlights the power of a single individual to take action and drive impact.