November 4, 2019

The Man Who Changed the Future of Florida Elections

by Without Fail

Background show artwork for Without Fail

When Desmond Meade got out of prison after serving time for a nonviolent felony, he was homeless and wrestling with addiction. A decade later, he started a campaign that very few people thought was winnable: amending the Florida constitution to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. His unusual path to success on this politicized issue? Avoid politics, and appeal to principles.

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ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.

For years, there was a battle playing out in Florida. A battle over a law that said: if you were found guilty of a felony, you lost your right to vote in Florida. Not just for the duration of your sentence, but in almost all cases, permanently, no matter what kind of felony you’d been found guilty of.

And so this law meant that for a lot of people — citizens living in Florida — they didn’t have a say when it came time to vote for their local mayor, or their state representative. They couldn’t cast a ballot in a presidential race...

DESMOND MEADE: At its height, Florida disenfranchised 1.68 million people.


DESMOND: I mean, Florida disenfranchised more people than the population of over 15 U.S. states and territories, and over 50 countries in the world.


DESMOND MEADE: Right? And there were more people who could not vote in Florida in the last presidential election — in the primaries, I should say, than people who voted in the primaries in over half of the states of this country.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s right, more than a million disenfranchised voters in a state that regularly decides the presidential election. 

That man you heard, by the way, laying out all those stats, he is our guest today. His name is Desmond Meade. And he is the person most often credited with restoring the right to vote to those hundreds of thousands of people in Florida. Time Magazine named him one of the most influential people in 2019 for his efforts.

But for much of Desmond’s adult life, he wasn’t focused on abstract concepts like voting rights. As a young man in Miami in the late 90’s, his range of concerns was much narrower. He was addicted to drugs, marginally employed, in and out of trouble with the law. And in 2001, he got hit with a felony conviction, for a nonviolent felony, which he ended up serving 3 years in prison for. And when he got out, he was now one of those million plus people in Florida without the right to vote. 

But more pressingly for him, he was also jobless and wrestling with an addiction. 

DESMOND MEADE: You know, I did not use any drugs or anything like that in prison. But, you know, once I was out, you know, my use of drugs caused me to create new realities that were not good. And that was being homeless, unemployed and, just living on the street like an animal. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: In South Florida, too. Oh my God.


ALEX BLUMBERG: One of the main things I'm thinking about is just like how hot that would be.

DESMOND MEADE: It was hot. It was hot. I tell folks it was so hot, I actually seen a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait, is that a saying or did you actually see that? [laughs]

DESMOND MEADE: No, I actually seen it. I actually seen it. [laughter] Eventually though at some point, and -- and it was really in the month of August, the beginning of August, as I was walking the streets and I walked up upon the railroad track, you know, I gave some serious thought about just ending my life. You know, looking at the state that I was in, and not believing that there was any hope or any light at the end of the tunnel. I, um, I ended up stopping at the railroad tracks, just contemplating how much pain I was gonna feel when the train ran over me. And so I stood there waiting on the train to come. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: How long -- how long did you wait on the tracks?

DESMOND MEADE: God knows. It was a while, I think. But yeah, it was while. Like I said, it was -- I was in this zone. And I'll tell you it was, you know, traffic going back and forth, but I was able to block all of that out because the only thing that was really going through my mind was number one, that my parents didn't raise me to be in this position, but there I was. And how much pain I was gonna feel, whether I was gonna die instantly or had to go through moments of agonizing pain as the train crushed my body. But thankfully the train did not show up that moment.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What do you -- what do you make of that today? I mean, do you -- do you -- can you still access the way you were feeling back then? Or does it feel like a memory, or does it feel -- still feel immediate?

DESMOND MEADE: [laughs] Better not be immediate.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, right. 

DESMOND MEADE: I'll tell you that, you know? It's -- it's, you know, it's a memory that -- that I don't think I'll ever forget because, you know, that was when I was at my lowest. And those moments really help create or played a significant role in who I am today. And as it so happened, two blocks away was a substance abuse treatment facility. Um. And I went there, and I was able to be admitted into a treatment -- drug treatment program.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so you -- so you saw this treatment facility. What -- do you remember walking in? What was that exchange like when you walked in? What did you say? 

DESMOND MEADE: Uh, that I mean, basically that I needed help, and I needed the -- you know, I had a problem and I needed to get help.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Desmond ended up getting the help he needed. He got sober, and started building a life for himself. He found a place to live, and started working with an advocacy organization focused on homelessness. And Desmond says that a big part of his recovery was this belief that his life could be used to help other people. Being in service to others, it provided him a purpose that he’d lacked before. 

He thought the service he’d be providing was helping homeless families and other people in the same place he’d been in. But that all changed, when the organization he worked for sent him to a conference.  

DESMOND: And it was at that conference that I learned firsthand about felony disenfranchisement. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Um hm. What were they talking about? What are ...Yeah. 

DESMOND MEADE: So the policy at the time was basically that, you know, anyone in the state of Florida, once convicted of a felony offense would lose their civil rights for life. And that means that folks that may be driving with a suspended license, folks that may burn a tire in public, folks that may catch a lobster whose tail is too short, releasing helium-filled balloons in the air. They are just all kinds of folks, any felony, it didn't matter how serious the felony was, didn't matter what degree it was, didn't matter whether or not you were sentenced to prison or not. You know, just the mere fact that you was convicted of violating a felony offense, any felony offense in the state of Florida, would automatically trigger the loss of your civil rights, which meant that you couldn't -- you lost the right to bear arms, you lost the right to serve on a jury, you lost the right to run for office and you lost the right to vote. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's a lot of rights.

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah, that was a lot of rights. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And that was just the beginning. It was harder for people with felony convictions to get jobs, to rent a place to live, because some places had by-laws forbidding people with felony convictions from residing there. And as Desmond himself found out, people with felony convictions could even be denied access to entire professions. 

DESMOND MEADE: Coming out of a -- a drug treatment, I had ended up enrolling in college, Miami Dade college in the paralegal program. And as I was going through my courses, I came to really appreciate how law is so intimately intertwined in every aspect of our lives, right? And so what I concluded was, that if I want to help people, the more understanding I have or the better understanding I have of the law, right, the more capable I am to help folks. And what better place than a law school. But um, when you graduate law school, you know, you have to apply to the Florida bar, and then they will allow you to sit for an exam, a bar exam. And then if you pass -- if you pass the bar exam, then the bar can admit you to practice law in the state of Florida. Because of my prior felony convictions, actually because I lost my civil rights, I wasn't permitted to even apply to the Florida bar. 


DESMOND MEADE: So they're not even getting an opportunity to consider my application because I can't even submit one.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you know that going into law school?


DESMOND MEADE: I did not know I couldn't apply, but what I did know going into law school was that me having a felony conviction would probably make it difficult for me to actually practice law in the state of Florida. I -- you know, it wasn't until my -- I think my final two years of law school that I realized that, you know, I can't even apply. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: In the years that he was studying law, he was also getting more involved with a group from that conference that he’d gone to, a group called the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He’d been elected to the group’s steering committee — which, among other things, meant he joined monthly phone calls with felony disenfranchisement experts from all over the country. And as he listened in on those calls, Desmond started to realize that all of those problems that people like him, with felony convictions, were facing … with jobs and housing … they were problems that could be solved only if people like him had more of a voice. If they had the right to vote.  

DESMOND MEADE: I started to understand how voting and felony disenfranchisement plays a significant role in addressing the issues that people are concerned about. So the housing and the jobs and the things of that nature, and -- and then the narratives that -- that causes people with felony convictions to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives. How all of those things can be impacted by voting.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you're listening to these monthly conference calls, you're hearing all these people, all of these experts, all these different people who are involved in the cause talk about felony disenfranchisement and the barriers that ex-felons are facing as they try to enter society. And it's -- and -- and more and more, it seems to all go back to -- to the right to vote as a way of, like, sort of addressing those -- those inequities?

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah. So what I would say probably what have the biggest impact on all of it, is being able to vote. You know, I think that there's some other pieces that must go along with that. But I think the biggest impact in addressing the issues that are important to folks who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, is voting. And being able to have a say in who our elected officials are, because when you talk about this narrative around criminal justice, particularly around this tough on crime narrative, that is like a -- almost like a false narrative that's been perpetuated in politics for quite some time, right? And the -- the baseline of how politicians are addressing criminal justice, whether it's through incarceration, whether it's through re-entry, whether it's through policing practices, have been driven by something that is not necessarily based on any kind of data or any deep research, right? And part of the reason is -- is that the politicians are not accountable to the people and families of the people who are impacted by the criminal justice system.


DESMOND MEADE: Right? And so being able to vote will now create a situation in which politicians would be accountable. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, I'm thinking, I mean, just -- just taking you as an example of somebody who has been impacted by -- by -- by the criminal justice system. Like, you're somebody've seen firsthand what it's like inside of prison. You -- when you came out, you started to learn law inside the prison. You came out, you ended up going to law school, you have a lot of experience dealing with this -- dealing with these systems that politicians are creating and making laws about, and yet you have no voice to speak to them through -- through the ballot box. And it's sort of like of all the people who understand this most intimately, you're the people that the politicians should be hearing from, and yet you are the very people who are not able to express your opinion to them.

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah. And I think -- and you're correct in that. You know, you're talking about the state of Florida where you have -- we have potentially 1.4 million people who can -- who have the pathway to voting. And when you look at Florida as a state in which a gubernatorial race was decided by 30,000 votes and congressional race by 16,000 and the presidential by 100,000 or less votes, you know, I'm thinking 1.4 million voters who've been touched by the criminal justice system can have an impact on how politicians are talking about the criminal justice system. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right, right.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up, Desmond is faced with two ways of tackling this problem, an incremental approach, or a radical one, that most experts believe would never work. Why Desmond chose that second option. That’s after the break.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Desmond Meade.

In the time that Desmond had been working on the issue of felony disenfranchisement, the movement had started to see some success. It had directed its focus on the governor’s office. And in 2007, then-Governor Charlie Crist agreed to create a path for  people convicted of nonviolent felonies to regain the right to vote, doing away with an arduous person-by-person petition process. In a matter of years, more than 150 thousand people in Florida had regained the right to vote. But then, all of that progress was stopped in its tracks.

ARCHIVAL RICK SCOTT: Florida is open for business! (CHEERS)

ALEX BLUMBERG: This is Rick Scott, a conservative Republican, who took the governor’s office in 2010. And one of the things he did... was reverse the changes that Governor Crist had made. People with felony convictions would once again have to petition for the right to vote…and they could only do that after a five to seven year waiting period.

DESMOND MEADE: When the administration rolled back the policies, there were so many people that were disheartened, so many organizations that was disheartened. Because there was a lot of work put into at least getting it to where non-violent offenders was able to have a easier pathway. And so to see all of their hard work just undone by a signature on a piece of paper, um, was demoralizing to a lot of folks. But, you know, there was some folks that couldn't walk away, and those folks were people who were directly impacted. And eventually, um, I think about a couple of years later, we were able to -- to start having the conversations. I was going around trying to talk to folks and convince them that a ballot initiative is a way to go about it, because we had a couple of options. You know, either you -- you depend on the governor and his cabinet to change their policies. Either you try to work with a state legislature to change the policies or you take matters in your own hands through a citizens' initiative. And at the end of the day, the first two options was relying on politicians. The third option was relying on people. And, you know, I personally felt that, we have a better shot relying on people than politicians.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And so the ballot initiative was -- that was -- that was your idea?


ALEX BLUMBERG: What -- what were the -- what was the argument against from people that you were hearing?

DESMOND MEADE: I mean, a typical argument's been that -- that there's no way something like that would even make it to the ballot. It's too political. You know, it's just a very controversial topic, when you talk about people with felony convictions and you talk about voting, especially in the state of Florida, which has been the home to pivotal elections that decided the fate of this world and this country.


DESMOND MEADE: And so that was -- you know, that was a typical argument, you know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Well, I would — I'm — I'll lay all my cards on the table here. I'm -- I am a supporter of this initiative. [laughs] Let's just -- like, you know, I would -- I would -- I would -- I would've -- I would have voted for it if I lived in Florida. I'm -- I'm supportive of the -- of the goal of it. But I would have probably been arguing against it to you, had I been around at that time, just because it seems like, well, there's no way -- there was no way this will pass. It just seems like where you think about, like, where this country is and where Florida is, and, it just felt like there's no way.

DESMOND MEADE: Yup. You know, my mother would have probably told me the same thing, you know, if she was alive. But at the end of the day, there was a way ...

ALEX BLUMBERG: When people told you that, though. Like, what did you say back to them?

DESMOND MEADE: There's a way. There's a way. And I -- I -- you know, the thing about it is two things. Number one, is that I truly believe that the power of the people is much greater than the people that are in power. And then I also firmly believe that this campaign was divinely-inspired and divinely-led. It was the right thing to do, you know? Back in the Civil Rights era when -- when Martin and others were marching, and -- and -- and doing their thing, they wasn't guided by polling. They didn't make the decision to -- to engage in -- in -- in those actions because of what polling told them or what the political experts told them. They created this movement because it was the right thing to do. You know, regardless of the fears or the apprehensions from political consultants or talking heads or -- or politicians or -- regardless of all of that, at the end of the day it was the right thing to do. When -- when -- when you're driving down the street and you see someone in an accident and you decide to stop and help, your first question is not gonna be, "Did you vote for Donald Trump?" Or how much money you make. Your first question is gonna be, "Are you okay? How can I help?" Right? That my desire or my willingness to help someone out should not be based on any political leanings. It should not be based on -- on what I assume their political preferences is. It should be based on the fact that there's a value there that tells me that if there's someone that needs help, then I should help, right? That right is right and wrong is wrong. And that in this case, that when the debt is paid, it's paid. You know, when you get that stamp, or that thing that says 'Paid in full,' you're not expecting other invoices to keep coming, you know? And if it does, something is wrong, you know? Even with bankruptcies, we forgive bankruptcies, you know, after a certain amount of time. And so forgiveness and redemption and restoration, those are some things that do not have any connection whatsoever to any kind of politics or political leanings.


DESMOND MEADE: Those are some pure things, pure values, that you can rally people around. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you, you come up with this idea for, like, we're gonna take it directly to the people. We're gonna put this thing as a -- as a ballot initiative on the -- on the -- in the -- in the Florida elections. How many signatures do you need first of all to make this happen?

DESMOND MEADE: So at the time -- yeah, so, uh, I want to say at the time, we needed, I would say around 600 and, like, 43,000 signatures. And we needed to collect about 10 percent of that to just trigger the Supreme Court review. And so the process is that you have to first collect enough signatures that would trigger a Supreme Court review in which the Florida Supreme Court would review the ballot summary title and language. Once that happens, and if the Supreme Court clears the language, then you can go on and -- and -- and collect the remaining 90 percent of signatures in a minimum amount of congressional districts that will be needed to actually place the measure on the ballot. And then once that happens, then of course the voters will have to come out and vote. And you will need to get at least 60 percent of Florida voters to say yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. So there's a lot of hurdles here. So you gotta -- first you gotta get it qualified. You got to get enough signatures so that, like, the Supreme Court can look at it. Then you've got to get the remaining 90 percent of the signatures that you need. So something -- which is like over half a million signatures. And those signatures, they all can't come from just, like, Dade County. They have to be spread throughout the state.

DESMOND MEADE: Oh no, they have to be spread throughout the state. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it. So that's the goal is that you gotta get it qualified from the Supreme Court, then you gotta get it on the ballot, and then you gotta get people to vote for it. You gotta get 60 percent of the people to vote for it, not just a simple majority. 


ALEX BLUMBERG: Desmond himself drew up the first petition, printed out the first copies on his office printer, and got himself a clipboard.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Who was the first signature?

DESMOND MEADE: I could tell you that the first people that I went to that I -- I remember I went to Volusia County, and it was during election season. And I remember approaching a couple and asking them if they believed in second chances. And they were distinctively wearing, um, uh, Rick Scott t-shirts. So they were -- I knew they were conservative, strong Republican supporters. And I approached them.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What'd they say?

DESMOND MEADE: They -- they started talking about their Christian faith. I asked them if they knew someone that they loved or cared about who made a mistake. And they -- they had a family member who, I believe had a problem with alcohol and made some mistakes, and -- and they believed that that person should get a second chance. And -- and I remember just sharing with them the story of — of — in the Bible with Jesus was on the cross, and how there was a criminal there that asked him to be saved. And one thing that we know that Jesus did not do was, you know, tell him he had to wait five or seven years. And that, you know, that forgiveness and redemption was immediate, you know? And I remember after sharing that story, both the husband and the wife asked me for the clipboard so they could sign the petition. I remember that. [laughter]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, when -- when they asked to sign your petition, what was going through your head?

DESMOND MEADE: [laughs] That there's -- there's something special here. By this being a people campaign, we didn't limit who we could talk to. We didn't limit who we believed would sign it. We believed that anybody, any voter had the potential of, of signing that petition, because every single one of them know what it's like to want forgiveness. 


DESMOND MEADE: And we showed that we can actually go in conservative communities and have value-based discussions with folks, and get them to take action. This became more about people than politics every single day.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How long ultimately were you on the road, getting people to sign the petition?

DESMOND MEADE: Every single day. Every single day from October of 2014 all the way to January of 2018.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What? Wait, wait. So that's almost three -- that's a little over three years, of every day talking to people with -- with your clipboard getting them to sign the petition.

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah. At some point or another you can say that. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. Wow. What did you -- were there different sort of tacts you used for different -- different people? Like, were there different lines of argument you used for different people?

DESMOND MEADE: Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. It was -- it was a -- it was a constant message. It was a very simple message: Do you believe in second chances? It was our desire to make sure that the issue transcended partisan politics. Uh, we wanted to make sure that it transcended racial anxieties, that it was elevated above the fray. And we knew as long as we kept it there, we had a real good chance of winning.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up after the break… election night. And the fate of the amendment that Desmond Meade worked so hard to pass.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with voting rights activist Desmond Meade. 

By the time Desmond was petitioning for a constitutional amendment to reinstate voting rights, he'd become the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. And over the years, the group that he now led enlisted volunteers from all over the state, all walks of life, diverse political persuasions.

And eventually, they got enough signatures to get their measure on the ballot. It was called Amendment 4. And on Election Day, November 6, 2018, the voters of Florida would decide whether it passed or not. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So I want to get to the -- the night -- the night, right? Like, so -- have you been polling? Do you know? Like, are you feeling like, "Oh, this is -- this thing's gonna pass. I know." Or are you biting your nails? What's your state of mind in the -- on the eve of the election?

DESMOND MEADE: [laughs] I'm doing both, you know? At the time, I'm highly confident that we're gonna -- this thing is gonna pass, you know? But ...


DESMOND MEADE: ... there's still that level of uncertainty. Why?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Why are you confident?

DESMOND MEADE: Why? Because -- because of that first signature I got from that couple, that conservative couple, right? And what polling has -- had showed me throughout the entire campaign, that people on both sides actually believe in this.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm. When the results started to come in on the night of the election, what were your initial reactions as you were -- as you were watching the returns come in?

DESMOND MEADE: Wow. [laughs] You know, it was very -- it was a emotional, like, what do they call that, the pinball machine. I felt like a ball in the pinball machine. I was just bouncing all over the place, you know? Anxiety, excitement, happiness. Um. I mean, it was -- you know, when -- when we started looking at the numbers, and I didn't want to look at it early on because I was too nervous, and so I just isolated myself. But when I got the call saying that it's getting near and I remember going to our watch party and walking in. And when I walked in, folks just started cheering 

ARCHIVAL CROWD: [cheering] “yes on 4, yes on 4, yes on 4…” [cheering]

DESMOND MEADE: It looked like we were gonna win. And you know, it was first of all, relief. Relief. Because there was been — it's been a long journey, a lot of uncertainty. But to know that we crossed that finish line was so relieving. And then, you know, there were a lot of tears of joy, because -- let me tell you one story in particular. In 2016, during the 2016 general election, I was doing some work in Hillsborough County to get people to come out to vote. And I went by this voting location that was happened to be right across the street from a graveyard. And they gave us, some of the organizers there gave us a list of name of people that lived in the immediate community, uh, who had not voted yet. And -- and so we went around knocking on doors, encouraging people to go out and vote. And I ran across this man, an elderly guy, could barely walk. I convinced him that he should go and vote. He thought he couldn't, but I told them his name was on the roster. So he was able to get in this car, and I escorted him to the polling location. And he went in eventually and he came out. And he did -- he wasn't allowed to vote. And when I looked his name up, come to realize that eight or nine years ago, prior to 2016, he was convicted of driving with a suspended license. And because of that, this man was not allowed to vote. Eight years after being convicted of driving with a suspended license. And, you know, it was really an emotional time for me because he reminded me of my father. And I remember looking across the street at the graveyard and thinking that the current policies at the time would dictate that this man would die before he even get to vote again. And it was just so many people along the campaign trail who just told me all they want to do is feel like they're a citizen again. All they want to do is be able to vote, right? And to know that this man was gonna die before getting that experience again. It was very, very, very emotional for me at that time. And so when I walked in on election night, um, and I looked around, that same man was there. And I did not even know he knew about the watch party, 


DESMOND MEADE: And I remember him hugging me -- all he's saying is, "I can vote now. I can vote now." And tears are flowing down his eyes, are flowing down my eyes. And, I just started thinking about all of those people who I ran across in all the years who wanted that same thing, to be able to feel like an American citizen one more time, just one more time. And to know that this man and others would get that opportunity, it created such an amazing, amazing, amazing feeling within me, you know? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s amazing.

DESMOND MEADE: And that's what I was, like, most thrilled by, you know? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.  Do you -- does this make you think differently about, like, other causes that feel like -- the experts and the political experts are saying sort of like, "Well, that'll never happen." Having just sort of like made a thing happen that people said could never happen, does it make you think differently about other things that are out there that people are saying the same thing about?

DESMOND MEADE: Yeah, it make -- not only does it make me think a little bit differently about what people say can and cannot happen, it makes me think differently about how we as a -- as a country, as a movement could actually change how we approach things. You know, at the end of the day, what -- what are we -- what are we -- what are we fighting about, you know? I think we fight more about politics than the human element. And that's what's lost. People are lost, everyday people. Whenever there's partisan bickering, the casualties are always human beings, right? It was always every day, regular people. When we talk about having these conversations, no matter what the issue is, right, the challenge is, are we instinctively politicizing the issue from the very beginning? Because when we do that, then we limit our likelihood of success, and we diminish the people that are impacted by the policies that we're so-called advocating for.

ALEX BLUMBERG: After Florida voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, the state legislature responded by passing a measure requiring people with felony convictions to pay all court-imposed fines and all restitution due to victims before they could regain the right to vote. That could affect as many as half a million people, according to some estimates. Voting rights groups have challenged the measure, and the question is now before the state Supreme Court.

Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.   


Mixing by Kegan Zema with music by Bobby Lord.

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