For Desmond Meade, the right to vote is not simply a bedrock of American democracy. It is a personal struggle. He knows what it’s like to lose that right and he has spent the past 15 years working to help formerly incarcerated people in Florida fight to regain it.
Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), will be honored for his work as a democracy advocate with the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s 2021 Brown Democracy Medal. Under his leadership, the FRRC launched Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that asked Florida residents whether voting rights should automatically be restored for people with prior felony convictions. The measure passed in November 2018 with support from 65% of the state’s voters.
Meade lost his own right to vote in Florida when he went to jail in 2001 for felony possession of a firearm. He was released from prison in 2004 and introduced to the FRRC in 2005 as part of a drug rehabilitation program and volunteered to start taking notes during meetings.
Meade said he considered the experience with FRRC to be just as much of an education as the degrees he earned from Miami-Dade College and Florida International University College of Law. He quickly rose through the organization’s ranks as it became clear that his lived experience as a formerly incarcerated person would be crucial to changing the hearts and minds of Florida voters in the Amendment 4 campaign.
“Me being a returning citizen and not being able to vote and not having my civil rights restored, there was a level of pain that I had that others didn’t,” Meade said. “The overwhelming majority of people want to be forgiven if they ever make a mistake, which opened the door for us to talk about second chances, rather than focusing on partisan politics.”
Over the past decade, ballot initiatives have been used to strengthen democracy in states across the country by ending partisan gerrymandering, advancing reforms like ranked-choice voting and expanding the right to vote, as in the case of Amendment 4. Meade sees initiatives as an essential tool for citizen-led democracy reform that can unite people across the political spectrum to effect change.
“I think that every state should have a process in which citizens of that state can say that they want something different, something other than what the politicians want, and we’re going to come together and make it happen,” Meade said. “With Amendment 4, the tool of democracy was being utilized by the people who are closest to the pain and I think it says a lot about what’s possible.”
McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director Michael Berkman said Meade’s leadership and work on the Amendment 4 campaign symbolizes the institute’s mission to be “partisans for democracy” and recognize those who are working across divides to promote fairness, equality and the common good.
“The Amendment 4 coalition was democracy working in service of democracy, “Berkman said. “Their bipartisan appeal went directly to Florida citizens and was grounded in their sense of fairness and inclusion.”
Meade is the author of the book “Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens” and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2019. He will accept the Brown Democracy Medal and present a public lecture on his work at University Park on Nov. 11.
Established in 2014, the Brown Democracy Medal is funded by Larry and Lynne Brown to recognize new and innovative scholarship or practice in democracy. Both are Penn State alumni, and Larry is chair of the McCourtney Institute’s Board of Visitors. Recent recipients include nonviolent activist Srdja Popovic and David Farrell and Jane Suiter of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly.