Ex-felons in Florida celebrate, shed tears as they register to vote for the first time

After years of being unable to vote because of his criminal record, Desmond Meade cried with joy as he filled out his voter registration.

'It was a joyful moment,' says Desmond Meade

Former felon Desmond Meade, left, hugs a supporter after registering to vote in Orlando, Fla. on Tuesday. (John Raoux/Associated Press)
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For the first time in more than two decades, Desmond Meade has registered to vote. And that simple act made him weep.

Meade, like most people who've been convicted of felonies and served their time in Florida, was barred from voting until the law was overturned at the ballot box in November.

It potentially increases the pool of eligible voters by as many as 1.4 million people in a battleground state infamous for its narrow margins in key elections.

On Tuesday, after years of fighting for the right to take part in elections, Meade finally got his first chance to fill in his papers.

"I had tears of joy streaming down my face," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Here is part of Off's conversation with Desmond Meade, who was barred from voting because of convictions for cocaine and firearms possession during a period of addiction and homelessness.

Desmond, I know you have been waiting, well, for years for this day. So how were you feeling when you registered to vote?

Today, when I registered to vote, it was so many emotions that were going through me. I had tears of joys streaming down my face because it was a special moment and not just for me, but for my family.

My daughter was the one who helped me fill out the voter registration form and my sons and wife was there as I turned it in, so it was a very joyful moment.

Desmond Meade, left, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

And not just for you, right? There are a lot of stories about just how emotional it was in the registration office today.

Yes, yes, it was. From there, we hear stories throughout the state, in various counties in Florida, of people who were going there with their wives and their husbands and family members and crying. Everybody was so emotional.

And Florida is one of the few states that does not allow any felons — or did not formerly allow felons to vote in elections. This has now been changed for everyone except those who have committed felony sexual offences or murder. So what does this day represent for people like yourself, people who have been in this movement to try to get this changed?

It represents that love can conquer all.

On Nov. 6, when this amendment passed, over 5.1 million voters voted for this and when we looked at that and we analyzed that, what we seen was, none of those votes was votes that was based on hate or was based on fear. Those votes was based on love, forgiveness or redemption.

When people can transcend partisan bickering, when they can transcend the racial anxieties and they can come together along the lines of humanity, along the lines of love, there are so many powerful things that we can accomplish.

Former felon Brett DuVall, right, kisses his wife Dottie after he registered to vote at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

You say that love has a lot to do with it, but politics has a lot to do with it as well, doesn't it? And the fact that there are so many more black voters disproportionately affected by this anti-felon voter situation, even though the majority of felons in Florida are white, it was disproportionately affecting black men, black people voting. Why was that?

There's no secret that the history of felon disenfranchisement is based in the very sordid past. It was an attempt to prevent the newly-released slaves from voting.

It has spread and impacted more than just African-Americans ... so this became a rallying point for us to go out and say this is an all-American issue.

We had people who experts would think would be against us, actually support and endorse us. We enjoyed support from the Koch Brothers Industries. We enjoyed support from the Christian Coalition, from other conservative groups.

We have shown that people from all walks of life can come together. If we can hold onto that spirit, moving into 2019, we can do a small part to make the world a much better place.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala, right, celebrates with her husband David, a former felon, after he registered to vote. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

Can I ask you your personal story and your own background and how you got involved in the voting rights movement?

Because of years of drug abuse, drug addiction and homeless, I was in and out of trouble. Eventually, my drug addiction brought me in front of the railroad tracks waiting on the train to come, so I could jump in front of it.

That train didn't come that day and I crossed those tracks and I checked myself into drug treatment and, after treatment ... I decided to enrol in college and one thing lead to another and, eventually, in May of 2014, I was able to graduate [with a law degree.]

Congratulations.

Thank you.

Back then, even though I overcame so many obstacles, my story did not have a happy ending because I couldn't practice law and I couldn't vote because of Florida's antiquated law.

But today I can tell you that there is a somewhat of a happy ending because, after all these trial and tribulations, after all of the blood and sweat and tears of a historic grassroots movement, today I was able to walk into a supervisor of elections office and register to vote.

Written by Kate Swoger with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention