With Election Day rapidly approaching, Desmond Meade’s calendar has been jam-packed with political rallies and fundraising galas. In the past few months, the Miami native has been part of a handful of panel discussions about reforming the criminal justice system, appeared as a guest on MSNBC, and headed to Washington for the Black Men and Boys Day on Capitol Hill. When Meade doesn’t have his own engagement, he’s on the campaign trail with his wife, Sheena, who is running for Florida House District 46 in Orlando.
But come November, he won’t vote for her — or anyone else, for that matter. That’s because Meade is both a felon and a Floridian, two things that disqualify him from casting a ballot.
Over the past few years, Meade, a 2014 graduate of Florida International University’s College of Law, has been the face of the cause in Florida, circulating a petition and making media appearances in hopes of restoring voting rights to people who have served their time. The situation is dire — like Meade, nearly a quarter of black adults in the Sunshine State are disenfranchised because of a past felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group.
By now, this phenomenon is common knowledge — break the law, lose the right to vote. But if you’re a felon whose peak earning years have stretched longer than your sentence, there’s another way to influence the political process: with cold, hard cash.
There are no restrictions preventing those with criminal backgrounds from donating to the cause or candidate of their choice. That means guys like billionaire pervert Jeffrey Epstein, who pleaded guilty to soliciting underage prostitutes at his Palm Beach mansion in 2008, can pump thousands of dollars into political campaigns for candidates for whom they can’t even vote. That’s exactly what he did in 2014, when he gave $12,600 to Gwendolyn Beck, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Virginia’s Eighth District. (Epstein later returned $10,000 after a complaint was made about a possible violation of contribution limits.)
And Epstein isn’t the only wealthy South Florida felon to have lined the pockets of politicians in recent election cycles. Since his 2002 conviction for defrauding low-income tenants at his Little Havana apartments, former Miami commissioner and Miami-Dade school board member Demetrio Perez Jr. has given thousands of dollars to conservative causes and candidates, including a 2004 donation of $19,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. (Perez’s civil rights, including the right to vote, were restored in April 2006 during Jeb Bush’s tenure as Florida governor.)
Research by Yale University has shown that it costs about $40 to get a potential voter off the couch and to the polls. By that logic, political experts say a person’s campaign contribution can be even more valuable to a candidate than a vote.
“A $1,000 check can be thought of as something of the equivalent of 20 people voting, although that’s kind of a simplistic view of it,” says Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard. “That $1,000 check supports a lot of things because campaigns have overhead and operating costs.”
Some argue Florida's rules are just another example of a rich-guy loophole unavailable to lower-income felons. Steven Fazekas, a former Miami-Dade county fire engineer who pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud in 2004, calls it “a slap in the face of democracy.”
“I hate to use clichés, but money talks and BS walks,” he says. “I don’t have that type of money to spread around.”
Florida is one of only three states (the others being Iowa and Kentucky) that disenfranchises felons for life. The only way to earn back the right to vote is to make your case individually to the state’s clemency board.
To be considered, a felon like Fazekas must complete his full sentence, including probation, pay back any restitution owed to victims, and wait five to seven more years, depending on the crime that was committed. After that, an application must be sent to the state’s Office of Executive Clemency, which can take years to process it. The clemency board has four meetings a year to determine whose rights should and should not be restored. As of December, there were more than 20,000 applications pending.
It’s a process significantly more complicated than it was just a few years ago. In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded the Cabinet to allow voting rights to be automatically restored to the roughly 80 percent of ex-offenders who hadn’t committed violence. More than 155,000 Floridians had their voting rights restored from 2007 to 2010.
But shortly after Rick Scott replaced Crist in the governor’s mansion, the Cabinet changed the rules, creating the five- to seven-year waiting period. Only 2,200 people have had voting rights restored since then.
Restrictions like the ones Florida places on convicted felons have troubled origins in the South. Reform advocates say that suppressing minority voices is a feature of the law, not a side effect. In a 2008 letter, the Florida Advisory Committee — a bipartisan group that reports to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — argued that the state’s ban stems from discriminatory post-Civil War policies.
“In the ensuing decades, most former Confederate states adopted barriers that although neutral on the surface served to prevent many blacks from voting,” the committee wrote. Even in modern times, the group says the law “has a disparate impact on voting rights for minorities and males living in Florida.”
While politicians like Gov. Rick Scott have fought to further restrict the voting rights of felons, no one has campaigned to put limits on whether or not they can give money to candidates. That’s because putting restrictions on who can make political donations enters dicey territory, especially in this post-Citizens United world.
“If states were to try to limit anyone’s ability to participate in free speech by making a contribution or publishing an op-ed, I think there would be a real First Amendment problem with that,” says Roger Clegg, president of the conservative think tank Center for Equal Opportunity. “The Supreme Court has said campaign contributions are a form of political speech.”
Clegg, a former deputy assistant attorney general during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has been an outspoken opponent of automatic rights restoration for felons. But even given that position, he says he has no interest in restricting anyone from speaking with his or her wallet.
“There are a lot of ways that we allow people to participate in the political process but we don’t allow them to vote,” Clegg says. “If a 12-year-old wants to contribute to a political campaign, that’s allowed. They can make a speech or write a newspaper op-ed, but we still don’t let 12-year-olds vote. Same thing for non-citizens.”
By law, foreign nationals actually can’t make political contributions in any U.S. elections unless they have a green card. But Clegg is correct about rules concerning minors making donations.
In 2012, a Boca Raton teenager named Julie Towbin challenged a Florida statute that prevented her from giving more than $100 to local and state campaigns. A federal judge struck down the provision, saying it “had a chilling effect on the free speech” of minors. Weirdly enough, although they can’t vote, Florida children can now make donations of up to $500, the same amount as adults.
Although there’s a lot of talk about the influence of money in politics, Ansolabehere, the Harvard professor, says the effect of lobbying is actually much more powerful than the effect of campaign contributions. He says research suggests lobbying is ten times as effective at getting a politician’s attention than simply writing a check.
And in Florida, it’s actually easier for someone with a criminal record to become a registered lobbyist than it is for them to vote: a felon can register as a lobbyist with the state after completing probation and paying court costs and restitution with no waiting period, allowing them to bypass the cumbersome civil rights restoration process.
Changing the Law
While Meade had hoped to collect enough signatures to get a constitutional amendment easing voting restrictions for felons on the ballot for November, he’s since set his sights on 2018. His organization, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, continues to collect signatures online and at events around the state.
“Voting is the bedrock of democracy. Determining who gets that right or privilege and who doesn’t is such an important decision, and that’s why we have to take it out of the hands of politicians,” Meade says.
In the meantime, Rep. Alan Grayson introduced legislation in May that would prohibit states from disqualifying criminals, other than those who commit murder or sex offenses, from voting once they are released from prison.
“It’s a bill about redemption, about giving second chances and about closure,” Grayson says. “This punishment is a legacy from less civilized times.”
The new legislation may fail, and Meade’s ballot initiative might flop. But if you’re a felon who can’t vote this election season, you now know there are other ways to make your voice heard: pen an op-ed, write a check, become a campaign volunteer — hell, build yourself a new career a lobbyist.
And if you’ve got the dough, Meade has another suggestion: “Tell those wealthy donors they should be supporting Floridians for a Fair Democracy.”
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