By: Claudia Harmata
For many Floridians, Jan. 8 was just another Tuesday, dawning bright and cool — but for Desmond Meade, that day brought a moment he had been anticipating for more than 14 years.
Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, was surrounded by his wife and some of their children as he registered to vote for the very first time.
The excitement and realization of what was about to happen started while he was in the car, driving with his son to the registration office. Meade says that, until then, he had never had the opportunity to take his family to go vote, to talk about civic responsibility and the value of one’s voice.
“Oh my God, this is going to be my opportunity,” Meade recalls thinking. “Now that I’ve registered, I could lead my family to the polling locations to vote.”
Until recently, Florida was in a minority of states that still barred felons from being able to vote even after their full sentences were completed, including probation, unless they received individual relief from the Executive Clemency Board.
Critics have argued such a measure is essentially racial discrimination laundered through the state, as it disproportionately targets non-white offenders. The restriction traces back to the post-Civil War period, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Meade had been stripped of his voting rights following multiple felony convictions, but after completing his sentence he made the decision in August 2005 to transform his life — on the same day he tried to kill himself.
“I was actually standing in front of railroad tracks, waiting for the train to come,” he says. “I was homeless, I was addicted to drugs, unemployed and not too long released from prison. I didn’t have any idea of how I would see the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t have any hope, no self-esteem.”
“I was just there contemplating how much pain I was going to feel when the train ran over my body,” he continues.
But the train never arrived.