Unlocking the Texas Vote

Election 2004

Since spring, volunteers with Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition have added 10,000 new voters to Texas' rolls through the Unlock Your Vote campaign, which seeks to register ex-felons to vote and to educate the public about felon disenfranchisement. Eva Owens, TCJRC director, said the campaign has been a success – the original goal was to register 5,000 voters. "We're very excited about the level of enthusiasm out there," she said. The majority of new Unlock voters registered in Bexar, Harris, and Dallas counties, she said.

Nationwide, nearly five million Americans who have been convicted of a felony, or who are currently on probation or parole, will be denied the right to vote this fall. Nearly two million are black, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and fully 13% of all voting-age black men are disenfranchised, according to a recent report from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing the nation's reliance on incarceration. Forty-eight states have laws prohibiting an incarcerated felon from voting (only Maine and Vermont allow them to vote).

In Texas, felons who are "on paper" – meaning incarcerated after a final adjudication of guilt or on parole or probation – are prohibited from voting, but freed ex-felons who have completed their sentences or the terms of their release are eligible to vote. Likewise, accused felons on indictment, even those who are in jail awaiting trial or adjudication, are eligible. Travis Co. Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade said that the office has been providing information to eligible voters inside Travis Co. jails and so far has had 24 inmates request a ballot.

According to University of Minnesota sociology professor Christopher Uggen, the nation's leading expert on felon disenfranchisement, there are about 500,000 felons in Texas (3.4% of the state's voting-age population) who are unable to vote this year – including more than 160,000 prisoners and 200,000 felony probationers. Seven states, including Florida, forever ban ex-felons from voting – which has led to several high-stakes lawsuits currently pending in Florida courts. In Florida, felon disenfranchisement means that 10% of all black adults will be denied the right to vote.

Unfortunately these numbers don't bother some politicians, who apparently consider the policy of denying constitutional rights in perpetuity to one segment of the population sound policy. In 2001, state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, sought to further disenfranchise felons by authoring a bill that would ban them from voting unless and until they received a full pardon for their crimes. Indeed, in an April article in the Statesman, Grusendorf appeared shocked by the idea that felons should be afforded the same constitutional rights as non-felons. "So the basic principle of democracy is that you ought to let jailbirds vote?" he asked.

To Uggen and others, the answer is yes. In fact, according to a study conducted by Uggen and Northwestern University professor Jeff Manza, restoring voting rights to felons may have a broad and positive impact on recidivism rates. "The existing research literature has primarily considered the political implications of disenfranchisement," Uggen and Manza wrote in a research paper slated for publication in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. But there are other factors to consider. "One of the most important issues yet to be systematically addressed concerns the relationship between political participation and subsequent criminal activity. ... We find consistent differences between voters and nonvoters in rates of subsequent arrest, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior," they wrote. "Moreover, a general education program working in concert with citizenship education and political participation may be especially effective in facilitating distance from crime."

Still others, including Owens, reject Grusendorf's assertions based on a more fundamental position. "In a democracy you don't just take away someone's right to vote," she said. "The bottom line is that it's a slippery slope when we start deciding which citizens are more worthy of voting." Meanwhile, Owens said the coalition has set up phone banks and is doing canvassing to ensure that newly registered ex-felons make it to the polls on Nov. 2. For more on felon disenfranchisement, go to www.righttovote.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Election 2004, Election, felon disenfranchisement, Christopher Uggen, Kent Grusendorf, Eva Owens, Criminal Justice Coalition, Unlock Your Vote

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