Cell-bloc Voting

A new effort tries to unlock former felons' votes

But Unlock Your Vote's early emphasis, says campaign program coordinator Eva Owens, was directed at changing governmental policy that was seen as an impediment to voter education. "We began by working with the secretary of state to change the language in the voter registration application," Owens says. "The form required residents to 'affirm' that if they were a felon, they were eligible to vote under Section 13.001 of the Election Code. Most felons were unfamiliar with the code, and many just assumed it made them ineligible to vote." In January 2004, the secretary of state will be issuing a new felon-friendly application form that will require those previously convicted to affirm, "I have completed all of my punishment, including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned." Owens believes the change "is going to have a huge impact, more than anything else we have done."

More recently the campaign began its voter registration drive in earnest, forging partnerships with ex-offender community service organizations such as Restoration Justice Ministries in Huntsville and MASS Inc. (Mothers-Fathers for the Advancement of Social Systems) in Dallas to register at least 10,000 former felons across the state. Joyce Ann Brown, the president of MASS who was herself wrongfully incarcerated, will coordinate the Dallas effort. Despite the appealing no-vote, no-voice rhetoric coming from the campaign, those on the ground find the task of convincing former felons to vote daunting.

"Their first response is, 'What's in it for me?'" says MASS program coordinator dianne gipson (she doesn't capitalize her name as a sign of religious reverence). "'Will it help me get a job? A place to live?' My response is, 'It helps you become part of the political process.' That registers with some and not others."

Bill Kleiber (left) helps newly released ex-convicts, such as José Cibrian, to register to vote.
Robert Allred
Bill Kleiber (left) helps newly released ex-convicts, such as José Cibrian, to register to vote.

That doesn't surprise Ned Rollo, a Dallas ex-con who has built a career writing a successful series of books about the issue of offender re-entry. "There is a great deal right with trying to get people who have been excluded from the community to participate in it," he says. "The problem is that some ex-cons have no goddamn faith in the political process. There is all this anti-social hate and rage and alienation that stands between the disenfranchised and the voting booth."

Each day at his bus ministry, Bill Kleiber hopes to convince isolated loners, many of whom have little recent memory of human connection, to join a group, even if it's just a group of voters. Of the 15 or so former felons he approaches daily, he persuades about 10 to fill out voter registration forms. He does it by telling them he is one of them and getting them to trust him, even if it's just for 10 minutes. "I just say if they vote, it's not all that hopeless out there. Unlike prison, it gives them a choice."

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