On a muggy August day in 2005, Desmond Meade stood in front of the railroad tracks north of downtown Miami and prepared to take his life. He’d been released from prison early after a 15-year sentence for gun possession was reduced to three years, but he was addicted to crack, without a job, and homeless. “The only thing going through my mind was how much pain I’d feel when I jumped in front of the oncoming train,” Meade said. “I was a broken man.” But the train never came, and eventually Meade walked two blocks to a drug treatment center and checked himself in. He got clean, enrolled in school, and received a law degree from Florida International University in 2014. Meade should have been the archetypal recovery success story—“[God] took a crackhead and made a lawyer out of him,” as he put it. But he’s not allowed to practice law. And when his wife ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016, he couldn’t vote for her. “My story still doesn’t have a happy ending,” he said. “Because despite the fact that I’ve dedicated my life to being an asset to my community, I still can’t vote.”
Meade was recounting his experience this summer at a gathering of ex-offenders in Ocala, a conservative city of 60,000 in central Florida, 80 miles north of Orlando. Florida’s primaries were just days away, and there was an early voting center nearby, lined by signs for the candidates.
But 1.69 million Floridians like Meade aren’t able to participate in the 2018 elections. Florida bans people with felony records from voting, practicing law, or serving on a jury. Across the United States, 6.1 million ex-felons can’t vote. Some states prohibit people from voting while they’re on probation or parole or have unpaid fines, but Florida is one of only four, along with Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, that still bar ex-felons from voting indefinitely unless their rights are restored by the governor. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida disenfranchises more citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee combined. Ten percent of the state’s adult population is ineligible to vote because of a criminal record, including 1 in 5 African Americans. Florida counts 533 different infractions as felonies, including crimes like disturbing a lobster trap and trespassing on a construction site. “Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation” is an unofficial slogan.