By most standards, Desmonde Meade is an overachiever. The 46-year-old is a fourth-year law student at Florida International University. He made the 2013 dean’s list. And he’s about to start working as a regional coordinator for a national anti-violence organization. But, barring some unforeseen policy change, he won’t ever get the chance to practice law in his state. And this promising, African-American law student isn’t allowed to vote. Nearly two decades ago, after a struggle with drugs and alcohol led to a series of run-ins with the law, Meade served three years in prison. In 2005, he checked himself into a substance abuse program and stopped using drugs. Yet, because of a policy adopted by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, he is prohibited not only from voting, but also from serving on a jury and becoming a member of the Florida bar. “I was in prison because I had an addiction to drugs and alcohol,” he said. “Should I be ostracized for the rest of my life because I fell victim to the grip of addiction? No. Should I pay the price for any crimes I committed? Yes, I should pay the price. But once I serve my time, I’m still an American.”
It’s a story told time and again in this country, even in 2013: A nonviolent offense brands someone a felon and strips them of their voting rights, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
More than a million of these disenfranchised Americans are black. Felony convictions restrict 13 percent of the country’s black male population from voting, prompting critics to portray felon disenfranchisement as an heir to the voter-suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era. Back then, black people eager to cast their ballots encountered poll taxes, literacy tests and violence. Today, the mechanisms of disenfranchisement may be more sophisticated, but they can be just as oppressive, civil rights leaders say.
More than 30 states have passed laws in recent years requiring voters to display photo identification, which minorities and low-income Americans disproportionately lack. Just this week, North Carolina’s Republican-dominated Senate approved a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration, cut early voting by a week and require all voters to show specific forms of state-issued ID at the polls.