Prologue West Powell had a story to tell. In doing so, he changed our democracy for the better. The forty-five-year-old African American with a big smile and a soft voice did not set out to have such a large impact. He just wanted to feel whole again, feel like part of society, feel like his small voice would at least be heard. He was finishing up a physical therapy degree and feared that he wouldn't be able to find a job. Maybe, just maybe, if he told his story, someone would listen. Sure, it seemed futile. But even long shots have a chance, right? If only Powell lived in a different state, not Kentucky, then perhaps things would be easier. But he had a family and a home. In any event, he wanted to feel like part of his community, not outside of it. The problem was that over twenty-five years ago, Powell had made a dumb mistake. He had just graduated from Holmes High School in Covington, Kentucky, which is just south of Cincinnati, when he and his brother broke into an auto salvage yard and stole a car radio. He was caught and convicted of a felony. He served his time, met a woman, and started a family. He opened up his own computer repair shop. But he strived for more. Adding insult to injury, he also lost his right to vote -- for life. States have varying rules on felon disenfranchisement, with two -- Maine and Vermont -- actually allowing prisoners to vote while in jail and many at least reinstating the right to vote after a person finishes his or her prison sentence and parole. But in deep red Kentucky, felons are disenfranchised forever. The only recourse is to ask the governor to restore someone's civil rights, and you can imagine how often that works. So Powell decided to speak up. He wasn't even thinking about voting rights as much as his application for a physical therapy license. He had earned a 4.0 in school but feared that the state would not let him finish his licensure exam. He needed to have his record expunged. For several years the Kentucky legislature had considered a bill to allow certain low-level felons to regain their rights, but it had always failed to pass. Why would this year, 2015, be any different? What would convince the legislators -- especially conservative Republicans who tended to support felon disenfranchisement -- to change their minds this time? The answer was West Powell. His voice shook as he began telling his story to the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee, which was considering a bill to allow some felons to seek an expungement of their record. "My name is West Powell," he said softly. "I'm a forty-five-year-old father of five. I have four girls, one boy. I was trying to have a boy, but the four girls came first, so, that's that." The lawmakers chuckled. Then he told the committee about the mistake he had made back in 1989, when he was still a teenager. "Me and my brother--he's sitting back there--came up with a stupid idea to steal a car stereo from an auto parts place, and we got caught doing it." He proceeded to explain how he spent eleven months in jail because he violated his probation curfew of 10:00 pm, but only because his job made him work until 11:00. Once out of prison he cleaned up his life, but he had a hard time finding a new job given that he had to "check the box" on any job application to indicate that he was a felon. He went to school to learn about computers and then opened the computer repair shop. "Since I can't get a job, I'll just make my job--so if any of you guys need laptops repaired...iPads screens replaced, I do a lot of those, I do cell phones as well," he quipped. He then talked about his physical therapy degree, noting that his clinical exams were coming up. Part of that process included a background check, and "I'm sweating bullets" about what would come back. "All of that work I've done may be going down the tubes," he lamented. "I've beared [sic] this cross for a long time," he testified. "I know I made a mistake. I think I've paid for that mistake--four times over. . . . I'm not a criminal. I was a stupid kid and made a stupid mistake." Four minutes later, Powell was done. His short statement would reverberate around the state, impacting thousands of Kentucky felons. Republican Senator Whitney Westerfield was in the hearing room that day. He listened intently as Powell gave his testimony. Westerfield is a pro-law enforcement conservative who ran unsuccessfully for Kentucky Attorney General in 2015 and is running again for the job in 2019. He was initially opposed to allowing felons to seek an expungement of their records, and he thought that nothing would change his mind. Why should someone who had violated the social contract and committed a crime be given any leniency? Yet, as Senator Westerfield listened to Powell's story, something stirred inside of him. Something clicked. He changed his mind on the spot. He texted a fellow Republican: "If I'm still here in January [after the next election], then we are going to make this happen!" Westerfield became an unlikely advocate for Powell's cause. As Westerfield explained to the media, "this guy has done what we ask everybody in the justice system to do: correct the behavior and don't do it again. We ought to be able to help that guy." He continued, "This isn't about [Powell]. It's about the nearly 100,000 others like him across Kentucky that can benefit [from] this hope-giving, redemption-providing bill." The bill passed in 2016, and Powell and thousands like him are now eligible to regain their rights, including their right to vote. Reflecting on this effort a few years later, Powell remembers being mostly worried about his physical therapy exams at the time, but he now recognizes the impact he had on the most important right in our democracy, the right to vote. In particular, he considered how our elected leaders don't necessarily reflect the full electorate because so many people are cut out of the system. "If you have only one section of the population voting," he told me, "then politicians only hear their voice." This can lead to skewed representation and skewed policies. West Powell secured an expungement of his record and finished his physical therapy degree. He has voted in every election since. "It gives me a voice," he told me. "I'm not just a silent person anymore who can't participate in the voting process. They can't ignore me anymore. Somebody has to speak to me now to get my vote. I'm a voter--so show me what you have to offer!" It's time to take back our democracy, one voter and one inspiring story at a time."Oh no!" you might be saying to yourself. Not another book that clamors for us to "rise up" or "resist," using broad platitudes with few practical solutions. Do we really need someone else arguing for seemingly-impossible changes to our democracy without providing real-life guidance on how to make it happen? This is not that book. It instead offers a different path, explaining how to reform our democracy from the ground-up through the stories of individuals who are already seeing success. Positive voting rights enhancements at the state and local levels can fundamentally change American elections. These new election rules expand voter eligibility, improve the voter registration process, and make voting more convenient and more reflective of the public's will. Some states have eased their rules on felon disenfranchisement. A few localities have expanded the voter rolls, allowing high school students to vote in local elections and creating a new generation of engaged citizens. Election Day itself is becoming more convenient. Voters with disabilities face fewer hurdles. Activists are putting voter IDs into voters' hands. Reform advocates are taking politics out of redistricting and promoting campaign finance reform. This is the untold story of voting rights in America. Although the media and the general public emphasize the ways in which entrenched politicians rig the rules to keep themselves in power, there is also much to celebrate in how individuals on the ground are helping to enhance our democracy. We must not bury these positive stories among the common refrain of voter suppression. This is the necessary counterattack to the doom-and-gloom that dominates our discourse. Pro-voter enhancements can provide all of us with hope for a brighter democratic future. Everyday Americans are the main drivers of this early success. Call it the Democracy Movement and its advocates today's Democracy Champions. People like Rob Richie, Molly McGrath, Katie Fahey, and Jen Hitchcock--inspiring individuals you will meet in this book--have become democracy champions in their communities. This is the antidote to politicians who craft rules for our democracy that primarily benefit themselves. It is the way to fight back against big corporations and moneyed interests who impact the rules of the game. Citizens who care about our democracy can take a stand, organize, and push for meaningful reforms to state and local election processes. We can fix our election system. However, it won't happen solely by legislative protests and filing lawsuits, by merely playing defense against voter suppression. Instead, we--all of us--must dedicate ourselves to expanding and enhancing the right to vote. The power of grassroots movements to improve our electoral system will change the reality of voting rights in America. The pages that follow tell the stories of the seemingly ordinary individuals who are at the forefront of these extraordinary efforts. The book follows people like Scott Doyle of Larimer County, Colorado, who developed a more convenient and secure way to vote through countywide Vote Centers instead of home-based precincts, which increased turnout significantly. You'll hear from energetic youth like Joshua Cardenas, who began a movement to lower the voting age to sixteen for local elections in San Francisco. You'll see how someone like Alison Smith, a stay-at-home mom in Maine, became a public champion for campaign finance reform, leading to the first statewide adoption of public financing in the US. Speaking with these individuals, while writing this book, has been immensely inspiring. Their stories provide me with hope for a better democracy. May they inspire you as well. Once you feel that call to action, flip to the back of the book, where an Appendix lists organizations in all fifty states working on these initiatives. Give one of them a call and see how you can help. Imagine: voter turnout at record levels. Young people, armed with better civics education, engaged with politics in a positive way. Individuals with disabilities having the same, easy access to the voting booth as everyone else. District lines and election processes that create fair elections, where ideas--not election rules--dictate the outcomes. The new voter expansion is happening in our communities through the hard work of these dedicated Americans -- today's democracy champions. The challenge for all of us is to expand upon their successes. Excerpted from Vote for Us: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting by Joshua A. Douglas All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.