The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida’s leading voting rights activist tackles obstacles beyond the ballot box

As his national profile increases, Desmond Meade pushes for jobs, housing and dignity for formerly incarcerated people like himself

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, powers his activism with his own story of turning his life around after prison. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Desmond Meade stood on the 50-yard line at Hard Rock Stadium, holding up his end of an oversize cardboard check. It was the kind that politicians and businesses use as props when they give away a big chunk of money, and this one represented a $200,000 donation from the NFL to an organization that Meade leads.

The event’s pomp, to say nothing of the size of the gift, was a world removed from his lowest days fresh out of prison. Back then, he was jobless, in drug rehab and thinking a lot about death, including his own.

“I didn’t want to be that person who died and nobody came to the funeral or even knew that he died,” he would later write in a memoir.

There’s no chance of such anonymity now. Whether on the Miami Dolphins’ home field, at a rally outside the Capitol in Tallahassee or on college campuses across the country, the burly, 54-year-old Meade is visible and known. More than anyone else, he is the face of voting rights activism in Florida, the man who spearheaded a state constitutional amendment to give people like him — people with felony convictions — the right to cast a ballot.

That work continues, as urgent as ever because of moves in Florida and in other states that have limited when and how people can vote, how they can register and whether they even can be given water while they wait in line at the polls.

But as his national profile has risen, Meade has expanded his message beyond voting rights to address the many obstacles formerly incarcerated people face. Voting is at the heart of making them whole, Meade says. It’s just the start, though.

“Our mission … is much greater than that,” he told an audience in Austin this month during a South by Southwest conference discussion on rebuilding these lives. “We believe that just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, our society, our country, can only be as great as those who have been most weakened by systems of oppression and discrimination.”

For years, he has studiously avoided making partisan statements, no matter how he was challenged publicly. That could soon change. People ask him all the time if he’ll run for office, and Meade no longer is brushing off the prospect with a laugh and shake of his head.

“I would consider it,” he said in a recent interview. “We need people in office who are more concerned about the needs of the people, all the people of Florida, than the needs of their political party.”

Meade is integrally linked to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which he has led for more than a decade. The nonprofit’s greatest success was the overwhelming passage of Amendment 4, the initiative that represented the nation’s largest expansion of voting rights since the civil rights era. More than 1.4 million Floridians who had served time regained the right to vote.

After the amendment’s impact was tempered by “implementation legislation” pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Republican lawmakers — requiring individuals to first pay off any fines and fees connected to their convictions — Meade and the coalition were able to raise millions of dollars to assist 40,000 “returning citizens” in settling those debts. Among the donors: singer John Legend and basketball superstar LeBron James.

The accolades haven’t stopped. In 2020, the Ford Foundation named Meade one of its first Global Fellows. In September, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a $625,000 “genius grant,” as the honor is commonly known, saying “his bold vision for empowering returning citizens through mobilization and education serves as a blueprint for other states to follow.”

Yet for all the praise and prominence, Meade remains a man living with drug and battery convictions — reflecting the troubled years after he was dishonorably discharged from the Army but before he was released from prison and transformed his life through college and law school. A felony record like his is often a barrier that can make it difficult or even impossible to find a job, start a business or be approved for a loan. Meade, for one, is still having trouble getting a mortgage.

“I may have the financial wherewithal to get a house,” he noted, “but even that is not good enough, you know?”

He maintains a frenetic schedule, often away from his family in Orlando as he crisscrosses both the state and nation to speak on panels, at churches, to inmates and in corporate boardrooms. He and friend Neil Volz, the coalition’s deputy director, host a podcast called “Our Voice.” Their biweekly conversations typically feature guests with lives once caught up in the criminal justice system.

The coalition’s rally during the 2022 legislative session drew hundreds of supporters to urge passage of bills that would lower hurdles to employment and housing for people with felony records. One measure, dubbed the Desmond Meade Bill, would block entities that contract with the state corrections department for prison labor from refusing to hire individuals after they are released. It died in committee.

Meade was among the scores of men and women who jubilantly registered to vote on Jan. 8, 2019, the day that the constitutional amendment took effect for formerly incarcerated Floridians. He paid off his fines and fees and, on Nov. 3, 2020, voted for the first time since leaving prison 15 years earlier.

Not until October 2021, however, did the state Clemency Board restore all his civil rights. (His initial request several months earlier had been denied, with DeSantis questioning him sharply.) He at last can sit for the Florida Bar. And he now can run for office.

He is still trying to keep the issues he cares about nonpartisan, the approach he says made the amendment campaign so successful: “Everyone knows someone who deserves a second chance.”

Such evenhandedness is why former Republican lawmaker J.W. Grant talks of the “fantastic working relationship” he had with Meade, even while pushing the measure that made voter registration contingent on repayment of prison fines and fees. “He’s somebody that I have a ton of respect for,” Grant said last month.

At the same time, it draws the rare criticism of Meade, mostly from individuals strongly aligned with his work.

Roni Bennett, co-founder and executive director of South Florida People of Color, says she understands why some people are frustrated with him but thinks he is wise to stay above the partisan fray.

“He’s able to maintain his credibility that way,” Bennett said. “It’s about human rights, not about Republicans or Democrats. There’s issues on both sides with that.”

Meade, who listed no party affiliation on his voter registration, is getting a little closer to crossing the line between activism and politics. While still not naming names, his language is more direct and pointed.

“Right now, democracy is burning. The country is burning,” he told students at Florida Memorial University in December. He looked exhausted, yet he became increasingly energized as he talked over the next hour, answering questions about how to organize for a cause and what to do when powerful people stand in the way of change.

In the end, Meade turned to hope — just as his own journey once did. “I do believe that we, as a community, will emerge from the ashes,” he said, “and create the type of democracy, the type of world … where we would be respecting people, respecting their humanity and be willing to treat everyone with dignity.”