Desmond Meade and Neil Volz are counting down the days to Aug. 18 — it’s the midterm election, and it will be the first time both men have been allowed to vote in decades.
That’s because the two have felonies on their record, and even though they’ve long since served their time in prison, volunteered with charities, been members of boards, and even graduated from law school, they have been barred from voting thanks to Florida’s voting rights laws.
“I am looking forward to having my hand sanitizer and mask and going to actually vote in person,” Volz laughed.
Meade is the executive director and CEO of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Volz serves as deputy director. Founded in 2003 as an email campaign, the organization was officially incorporated in 2011 and it has fought against voting disenfranchisement, particularly restoring the voting rights of returning citizens.
For years, Florida was one of four states that had lifetime voting disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions — they had to apply for the chance to have their voting rights restored. Former Gov. Charlie Crist wanted voting rights to be automatically reinstated for people without murder or violent sex crime convictions, but he was not able to get it passed. Still, he restored the rights of more than 155,000 people. The leniency was reversed during former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which only restored voting rights to 2,000 people.
It wasn’t until the passage of Florida Amendment 4, or the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, in 2018 that felons — or returning citizens — were given back their right to vote after serving their time. That meant 1.4 million people in Florida were suddenly allowed to vote. And Meade and Volz were both active participants in promoting Amendment 4, which passed with almost two-thirds of voters voting in favor of it.
Meade said he spent his life in and out of jail, and in 2001 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released after four years, and he remembers sitting at the railroad tracks, homeless and contemplating suicide, but “of course the train didn’t come.” He took this as a sign and checked himself into a drug rehabilitation program then enrolled in school.
In May 2014, he graduated with a law degree from Florida International University. Even though he had done everything to turn his life around, his past still haunted him — he was not allowed to sit for the bar exam. When his wife, Sheena, ran for a position in the Florida House of Representatives in 2016, he was not able to vote for her.
“I’ve always believed that there’s nothing that speaks more to citizenship than being able to vote,” he said. “Until a person regains the right to vote, they’re really relegated to being a second-class citizen.”
Volz also had a felony conviction and served time in Washington, D.C. After his release, he started working with the homeless and now lives in Fort Myers. He met Meade in 2014 and found that getting involved in FRRC “was an opportunity for me to take my past pain and turn it into something positive.”
During the campaign for Amendment 4, Volz drove all over the state and visited almost every county to educate voters about the bill. He also joined Meade on shows like “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” for interviews about their mission. They found that most people had no idea about what voting laws were in place for Florida residents with felonies on their records. Volz said all he needed was 20 minutes and a cup of coffee — in that amount of time with someone, he could explain the importance of Amendment 4 and voting rights.
“We knew deep down at the end of the day, if people saw us as people, we were going to win. If people saw us as something else, then we were going to lose,” he said.
That all changed on Nov. 6, 2018. The two men did television interviews in Miami and then Orlando, where they watched the results come in with their wives. Although they were confident it would pass, seeing it on the television made it all real: almost two-thirds of voters voted in favor of Amendment 4.
In an instant, Meade, Volz, and 1.5 million other Floridians suddenly had their rights restored.
“It was not votes based on hate or fear, but rather votes based on love, forgiveness and redemption,” Meade said. “There is a way that we can move major policy issues without having to tear each other down.”
However, the fight is still not over. A stipulation of Amendment 4 requires that returning citizens must pay off all their legal and court fees before their right to vote is reinstated. This has proven to be difficult, as people struggle to find jobs willing to hire them while also caring for their families and paying probation fees.
At FRRC, they believe that a person’s economic status should not stand in their way of being able to vote. In response, they created the Fines and Fees Fund where supporters can donate to help returning citizens pay off their fees. FRRC is also working to help those who are eligible to register to vote.
“The ability to take the anchor off of them, that $1,000 or $1,500 that they've been living with and unable to pay, is a very life-affirming process,” Volz said.
And with every dollar, more and more people are able to register to vote. Meade and Volz get text messages or see Facebook posts of people they’ve helped proudly holding up their registration card, ready to vote — not only next week, but in November.
“This is an important election, a very pivotal election, and it’s very important that every voice gets heard,” Meade said. “To know you have a voice in how your community or your country is being run is empowering.”
To donate to the Fines and Fees Fund, apply for assistance, or learn more about the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, visit floridarrc.com.