I was convicted of a felony and served my time, but in 2016 when my wife was running for public office, I couldn’t vote – despite being her most ardent supporter. It was humiliating and demoralizing, but it lit a fire under me.
I spent years developing and helping to lead the effort to pass Amendment 4, a grassroots citizens’ initiative to restore voting rights for Floridians with past felony convictions. It passed with 64 percent of the vote, and with support from Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. On Jan. 8, an estimated 1.4 million former felons in the Sunshine State became eligible to vote. This moment was a victory for the democratic process in Florida. Few are as passionate about voting as those of us who have lost, and then regained, our right to vote.
Unfortunately, millions of Americans across the country are still being denied their constitutional right to vote, as tactics such as voter roll purges, mismatched signature laws and excessive identification requirements become more common. But it wasn’t always like this.
There was an almost 50-year period, after the Jim Crow era laws of poll taxes and literacy tests, where we got it right. In 1965, when the federal government codified the National Voting Rights Act into law, state and local politicians could no longer corrupt election law without the Justice Department stepping in. Our electoral representation became more fulsome and our democracy stronger.
But in 2013, the Supreme Court decided to gut the key provision of the law that protected communities of color across this country. A recent Brennan Center study shows that counties previously subjected to this “pre-clearance” measure under the Voting Rights Act have experienced voter roll purges at a 40 percent higher rate than non-designated counties. Since this decision was made, it can sometimes feel like we are stuck in a new era of suppression with no end in sight.
I’m here to tell you that there is a solution, and it’s on the horizon.
A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would restore the Voting Rights Act, which allowed our democracy to prosper for nearly five decades. Written by Rep. Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat who is a champion of civil rights and now represents the symbolic city of Selma, this bill will make our country whole again. Today, Congress has the power to restore protections, effectively combat racial discrimination in voting and once again make voting a point of pride among our citizenry, not one of insecurity and shame.
I commend the 223 members of Congress that co-sponsored the Voting Rights Advancement Act, and I’m confident that it will pass in the House, just as the For the People Act did back in March. Though we can expect a more challenging road in the Senate, this doesn’t mean we simply give in.
This month, on the 54th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the fight is in Congress, and now is the time to organize. We show up and demand our right to participate in this democracy. We call our elected officials and urge them to vote on the For the People Act in the Senate and, soon, the Voting Rights Advancement Act in the House. We register to vote and call our local board of elections to make sure there aren’t discrepancies holding up that registration. We join together as a community at the grassroots level, not based on partisanship, but in a common love for the values this country holds. We do not take this lying down.
Americans want a country where everyone can participate fully – regardless of what they look like or where they live or how they may vote. In 2018, voters turned out in record numbers, supporting ballot measures and citizens’ initiatives aimed at making voting more accessible and eliminating unnecessary barriers.
When the state of Florida told me that I could not vote for my wife, the woman I love, I did not accept that fate. I brought together my fellow Floridians in a grassroots movement and told those in Tallahassee that this government was built for us, the people, not just the powerful. I am calling on all of us, believers in American democracy, to not stand by and watch our constitutional right to vote be diminished to a footnote in history. I’m calling on all of us to pass on a system of governance that our children and grandchildren can prosper under.
The moment is now, and the vehicle for change is you.
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led the effort for Amendment 4.