Voting rights advocate Desmond Meade named MacArthur “genius grant” winner

Desmond Meade, a civil rights activist who spearheaded an effort to restore the vote to formerly incarcerated people in Florida, has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Commonly known as a “genius grant,” the honor includes a $625,000, no-strings-attached stipend given to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.”

60 Minutes profiled Meade last September. The president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Meade led the push to amend Florida’s state constitution to restore the vote to Floridians with felonies. When Amendment 4 passed in 2018, it was the single largest addition to the country’s voting population in half a century. 

Meade’s work did not end there. A few months later, the state’s Republican legislature passed a measure requiring that legal fines and fees connected with a person’s conviction be paid before voting rights are restored. As a result, 774,000 of the estimated 1.4 million felons who regained the right to vote soon lost it because of their debt.

Meade has since raised millions to pay off the debts of formerly incarcerated people who want to vote.

“We’ve been constantly fighting,” he told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl last September. “Amendment Four was nothing but a continuation of the Civil Rights fights. And we’re still fighting.”

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Desmond Meade

Meade now has funding from a genius grant to assist him in that fight. The $625,000 stipend, which is paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years, aims to help recipients advance their work and does not fund a specific project. It is awarded based on three criteria: Exceptional creativity, a track record of significant accomplishments, and potential for the grant to enable future creative work. 

“Despite setbacks, his bold vision for empowering returning citizens through mobilization and education serves as a blueprint for other states to follow,” Meade’s profile reads on the MacArthur Foundation website. “Meade is pushing the nation closer to democracy that better represents the full extent of its citizens.”

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