By: Salena Zeto (New York Post)
MIAMI — Neil Volz was a man who had it all; Desmond Meade was a man who never had much of anything. Both of them were convicted of felonies and hit the depths of despair before realizing they could help others like them.
When the two met in 2015, it was a natural fit.
“Us meeting I don’t think was no coincidence,” Meade said. “When you put out your vibes into the universe, it tends to come back to you, you know?”
Now, thanks to their efforts, a newly passed referendum means 1.5 million convicted felons will be able to take part in Florida’s elections come November.
Five years ago, Meade founded the Floridians for a Fair Democracy to help felons like himself regain the right to vote. Volz joined the crusade one year later.
But the stories of how they got here couldn’t be more different.
Volz was in his second year at Ohio State 25 years ago when he started volunteering for his state senator, Bob Ney. When Ney won a seat in Congress during the big wave year for Republicans in 1994, Volz followed him to DC “for what I thought was my dream job.”
He quickly ascended in DC, eventually becoming Ney’s chief of staff and a successful lobbyist. But, in his work for the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Volz found himself immersed in a shocking corruption scandal, cooperating with the FBI and pleading guilty to a felony count of conspiracy.
“I lost my high-paying job, my marriage, my lifestyle and any chance of a career in politics. I was a broke man,” he said.
Meade, meanwhile, never had much to lose — a misspent youth that became a misspent time in the Army, which threw him out on a larceny charge. By then he was addicted to cocaine and trouble.
After the loss of his mother, Meade says he was a man without a home and a moral center. “In 2001, I was sentenced to 15 years for possession of a firearm. I only did three of those years. But when I got out, I still had the drug problem. Eventually, it led me to standing in front of railroad tracks, waiting on the train to come so I could jump in front of it in August of 2005.”
For whatever reason, the train never showed up that day. Instead, Meade walked to a rehab center two blocks away, got clean, went back to school, got two degrees and then enrolled in law school.
In 2015, both men found each other at a Florida Gulf Coast University event on felony voting rights where Meade was speaking.
“I walked in, and my instincts were that it was kind of progressive, right?” Volz said. “I’m a 20-plus year conservative, but I sat down and within 30 seconds, I felt like I belonged there.”
Volz joined Meade, and both lobbied to get the referendum on the ballot, restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences with just two exceptions: “There are no voting rights for people who have been convicted of murder or any sex offenses,” Volz said.
"They probably have to work harder for our vote than anybody else’s because we’ve known what it’s like to not have it."
Known as Amendment 4, the referendum required at least 60 percent voter support — and got 65 percent, more than any statewide candidate earned in Florida’s November elections. That’s a lot in a state where every vote has counted since the 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush was handed the presidency over Al Gore.
Over 6 million people in the US with criminal records have lost their right to vote, according to data compiled by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. More than 1.5 million of them live in Florida, more than any other state in the country.
It’s hard to predict which political party will most benefit from the referendum, both men said.
Meade, who is African-American, says the people who assume the amendment will benefit Democrats — because blacks are predominantly incarcerated and more likely to vote blue — have it all wrong.
“We know that African-Americans only accounted for like a third of the [newly] eligible voters,” he said. The “overall majority of folks who were impacted by this are white.”
And neither party should make assumptions about how newly enfranchised felons will vote, no matter their background.
“These political parties do have to earn our vote,” Meade said. In fact, “they probably have to work harder for our vote than anybody else’s because we’ve known what it’s like to not have it.”