We started the last day of Netroots Nation at “Voter Rights Restoration and the Move Toward a Growing Democracy: How We Get There”. It was a packed panel table, apparently because it was a merger of two panels to talk about restoring voting rights for previously incarcerated individuals and growing democracy for everyone.
We started, as with most panels, with a few words by the moderator(s) and introduction of the panelists. Elias Isquith, writer at Salon Media, went first into the historical background of voting rights, drawing right off the bat the connection between mass incarceration (and it’s disenfranchising effects) and upholding white supremacy. The next panelist, Nicole Austin-Hilary, director at the Brennan Center for Justice, echoed Elias and went further into describing how much there’s been a turnaround between how people think about voting rights for previously incarcerated individuals, especially in D.C. She mentions how there’s even bipartisan cooperation on this issue (with some policy differences).
We heard a powerful story from Desmond Meade, who was formerly homeless and previously incarcerated, and came from almost committing suicide to going to school and graduating from undergraduate, law school, and becoming the president and state director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the Live Free Campaign. His story doesn’t have a happy ending, he says, because he still can’t vote, still can’t get housing, still can’t get admitted to the bar, all because his rights haven’t been restored yet. 2 million people don’t have their full rights in Florida, a figure, he mentions, is bigger than the population of fifteen states. He highlights the importance of using the term “returning citizens” instead of “ex-felons” or “ex-cons”, because these are folks seeking to return to society and return to become members of the community they were torn away from.
State Senator Jamie Raskin of Maryland (and candidate for Congress for MD‑8), went first into talking about how the United States started as a slave republic with only white male property owners over the age of 21 having voting rights, only expanding voting rights through a process of continual struggle. He then explained that disenfranchising previously incarcerated individuals has no positive social benefit (seeing that not being able to vote has no rehabilitative purpose), and has the only real purpose of swinging the election a certain way by purging people from the rolls. This finished the part of the panel about restoring rights for returning citizens, and moved on to the panelists who were talking about expanding democracy as a whole.
Tova Wang, the Director of Democracy Programs for the Communications Workers of America, has went into the traditional talking points about how Congress, corporations after Citizens United, and the Supreme Court have been attacking voting rights and labor rights, making the Federal Elections Commission pretty much unworkable, attempting to do the same for the National Labor Relations Board, and undermining voting rights.
Matt Singer from the Bus Federation talks about moving beyond systems reform, and mobilizing people to vote, especially people who have never voted before. This includes highlighting places where returning citizens already have the right to vote, and mobilizing people to vote to ensure there’s a push for greater reforms.
We then went into audience questions, and the panelists delved into topics such as state laws on voting rights for people on parole or probation, how to include relatives and loved ones of returning citizens into stakeholder groups and coalitions, and someone plugging a video contest for people pushing a constitutional amendment against Citizens United.
In my opinions it was one of the best panels of the conference. Next up is the Presidential Town Hall with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley!