The Politics of Felon Disenfranchisement in Texas by Nicole D. Porter
The opportunity to vote in the Texas primary last week got me thinking about the thousands of men and women in the state that are not able to vote because of their felony conviction.
In Texas, the law is clear that once felons exit prison or complete the term of their probation or parole their voting rights are restored. Texas discharged more than 284,000 adults from prison, probation, or parole during 2004. While these individuals were "off paper", their previous felony convictions continue to impact their ability to obtain certain employment opportunities and participate in other aspects of civil society. Recent reports claim that a minimum of 2 million in Texas have prior felony convictions.
Policies implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) impact the civic participation of individuals with felony convictions who paid their debt to society. Correctional officials provide information to prisoners in agency handbooks. However, procedures that outline the practices of TDCJ to register discharging felons following the completion of their sentence remain informal.
The formerly incarcerated community is over represented by communities of color. In the state prison system, about 40% of prisoners are African American compared to only 12% of the state’s population.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, the sentencing of African Americans for drug offenses drove the growth in drug prisoner populations. The number of people admitted to prison in Texas for a drug offense grew from 5,805 in 1986 to 11,722 in 1999 a 102% increase. But during that time, the number of White drug prisoner admissions only increased by 671 (from 2,464 in 1986 to 3,135 in 1999), while the number of African American drug prisoner admissions increased by 4,837 admissions (from 1,352 to 6,189).
Restoring the right to vote to adults with felony convictions is a matter of state law. Texas and 13 other states allow people with previous felony convictions to vote once they complete their sentence. Chapter 11 of the Election Code stipulates voting qualifications and requires that a person convicted of a felony can vote once they complete their sentence, including any term of incarceration, parole, or probation.
Texas finished its 80th Legislative Session during May of 2007. During that period, I advocated for an initiative – HB 770 sponsored by State Representative Harold Dutton (D-Houston) -- that required TDCJ to notify persons exiting prison, felony probation, or parole that their voting rights were restored.
The measure received bipartisan support in the Texas House and Senate. No advocacy groups or individuals registered opposition to the change in law.
Yet, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill citing it as unseemly that the state would make a greater effort to register former inmates to vote than it would any other group of citizens in this state.
In fact the state does inform other citizens such as students that they have the right vote.
Additionally, the Governor claimed that it should be left up to the former prisoner’s personal responsibility to register to vote.
Yet one of the most significant problems surrounding felon enfranchisement is misinformation and the belief by many formerly incarcerated persons that they can not vote regardless of their supervision of status.
There is no doubt that Perry’s veto was inspired by partisan politics and the 2008 presidential election. It is unfortunate that the governor undermined an opportunity to strengthen democracy in Texas by improving access to voter information and registration. As a result, there is an opportunity for advocacy groups to fill the void and inform former felons that they have the right to vote.
While the Texas primary took place last week, there is still a great opportunity to get formerly incarcerated people registered and prepared to vote in November.
Nicole D. Porter can be reached via e-mail at: nicole.porter(at)gmail.com
To learn more about the work of the ACLU and BlackElectorate.com to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, and their partnership on felony disfranchisement please visit:
"ACLU and BlackElectorate.com Announce Partnership To Raise Awareness Of Felony Disfranchisement" (March 4, 2008)
and the following websites:
About: The BlackElectorate.com "Business and Building" Community is a diverse group of entrepreneurs, professionals, activists, artists, intellectuals and students established in October of 2006, drawn from the website's community. "Business and Building" is launching Four Initiatives in the following areas in 2008: Business and Investment; Community Development; Political Action; and International Affairs. The issue of Felon Disenfranchisement falls within the area of Political Action.
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Nicole D. Porter
Wednesday, March 19, 2008