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!

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