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Amendment 4 leader Desmond Meade tells Tampa conference the fight will continue for felon voting rights

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, speaks to about 200 attendees of the FAMMilies for Justice Reform conference in Tampa on Saturday. [NEIL BEDI | Times]
Published May 18

TAMPA — Laurette Philipsen keeps her voter registration card in her wallet at all times, tucked behind her driver's license. It's been there since the day she registered to vote right after Amendment 4 passed.

So when Desmond Meade spoke early Saturday to a crowd of about 200 people from across the country, Philipsen sat in the front row.

Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led the campaign to get Amendment 4 passed, restoring voting rights for hundreds of thousands of felons. His speech kicked off a weekend long conference run by FAMM, an organization focused on changing sentencing and prison policies to improve the rights and conditions of incarcerated people.

The conference, titled FAMMilies for Justice Reform and held at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, focused on teaching attendees how to speak against unjust policies and mobilize as a group to change them.

Meade knows the charge is daunting from his own experience, reminding conference attendees that people originally thought Amendment 4 would never pass.

"When you talk about felons and voting rights in the state of Florida, it's not supposed to happen," he said.

But a group effort that ignored partisan debates and focused on felons and their families successfully captured more than 5 millions votes. That's nearly "a million more votes than any other elected official on the ballot," Meade added.

Amendment 4 ended up being one of largest expansions of voting rights in modern Florida history.

But sitting in the crowd, Philipsen still worried whether she will ever be able to vote.

Earlier this month, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that would create new restrictions on felons hoping to vote. They require felons to pay all of their court fees and restitution before being able to vote.

Philipsen, 63, knows that would be impossible for her. She served time for grand theft and organized fraud, but still owes $200,000 in restitution. Her monthly income is $1,400 before taxes.

"Do you really think I'll be able to pay $200,000 on a fixed income?" she asked.

Another attendee, 66-year-old Oliver Bailey, whose brother has been incarcerated for 27 years, added: "When ex-offenders come out, you don't have much to go off as it is. No resources, no family to go to. How do you expect people to pay for these things?"

When felons come to Meade with these concerns, he reminds them to stay positive. Amendment 4 knocked down a wall, he tells them. It eradicated a lifetime voting ban for most felons.

"There is now a pathway to vote," he said. "There are just some rocks in the way."

Meade and his team will be focusing on helping people clear those hurdles. He said they'll be answering calls on their hotline to help felons regain their voting rights, raising money to help pay court fees and restitution, and working with felons to petition for relief from fines.

Meade will watch to see how Amendment 4 rolls out and will be on the look out for any problems. If he finds some, he intends to address them with the Legislature. With hundreds of thousands of new enfranchised voters coming to the table, he is optimistic.

"Our voices will be heard. There's no way around that," Meade said.

For now, Philipsen hasn't decided if she'll petition for relief from her restitution. Her voter registration card remains in her wallet.

"Until they tell me I have to give it back, that's exactly where it is staying," she said.

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