Every weekday morning beginning at 7 o'clock, the gate of Huntsville's Walls Unit opens, just slightly. Returned to society are a dozen or so prisoners who have completely discharged their sentences. As a parting gift, the state provides them with $50, the clothes on their backs and bus tickets. Those who aren't met by friends or family walk the two blocks to the bus station where they contemplate which direction to take their lives. Greeting them outside the station is an ex-con who refers to himself as "Brother Bill" Kleiber and refers to his calling as a bus ministry. He works for the Restorative Justice Ministries, which helps former inmates readjust to society after doing their time. "Welcome back," he tells the freshly released. "I am also an ex-offender. I want to help you."
With only minutes to make his sales pitch, he talks fast, which suits his manic personality just fine. He provides them with an 800 number, which can put them in touch with "food, clothing and shelter, someone to talk to," wherever they wind up. He answers their questions, trying to reorient them as best he can. "Now let me see if I can get you to help me out," he says, removing a blank voter registration application from his clipboard.
Kleiber knows it will be a hard sell to convince cynical ex-offenders they need to participate in the same system that put them away. Nevertheless, he explains that in 1997, Texas law changed, granting former felons--those who have discharged their sentences or are no longer on probation or parole--the right to vote. The problem is, nobody told them they had that right, at least not until now.
Texas is one of five states now being targeted by the Right to Vote Campaign, a national collaboration of eight civil rights organizations that have come together to "end the disenfranchisement of felons," says its director, Robin Templeton. "There are 4.65 million people across the country who are prohibited by state law from voting. In addition to those numbers, there are states like Texas with individuals who are de facto disenfranchised. They are allowed to vote but don't know they have the right to."
Felon disenfranchisement has a "sinister history," Templeton says, dating back to Jim Crow laws and Reconstruction, when Southern states in particular were searching for new ways to exclude blacks from society. Today the laws aren't race-based, but with the large number of minorities behind bars, the law still disproportionately discriminates against them, Templeton argues. The felon rights restoration movement has gained considerable momentum since the 2000 presidential election in Florida, which has strict laws barring all felons from voting. But overly broad, careless purges of perceived felons from Florida voter registration rosters resulted in non-felons being denied access to the polls, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. With the election riding on the Florida vote, these purges may well have led to the defeat of Democratic candidate Al Gore.
It's no small irony that when George W. Bush was governor, he signed a progressive bill that gave the right to vote to previously convicted felons once they were no longer in prison, on parole or probation. "I told Bush the bill would help Republican ex-felons, the same as it would Democratic ex-felons," recalls state Representative Harold Dutton, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the legislation. To target the more than 800,000 Texans who are former felons, the national campaign has partnered with the nonpartisan Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and other organizations such as the NAACP and People for the American Way. Their statewide effort, the Unlock Your Vote campaign, not only attempts to register former felons, it also seeks to educate them about their rights and get them to the polls.
These attempts have met with considerable resistance from politicians, many of them Republicans, who believe that those who have violated the law have forfeited their right to determine it. In the 2001 legislative session, Representative Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican, unsuccessfully sought to roll back the rights of felons by introducing legislation barring them from voting unless they had received a pardon. "I don't want politicians campaigning in prisons," he told The Dallas Morning News. "What's our next step, to go ahead and let them vote while in prison?"
The next step, at least for Dutton, was a bill he introduced in the 2003 session that would have "informed ex-felons that they had regained the right to vote," he says. It would have required the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to notify discharging inmates of that right, and it would have authorized TDCJ officials to place voter registration applications in prisoner discharge papers. The legislation, however, died in the House Elections Committee, which was heavily dominated by Republicans, all of whom voted against the bill. "Republicans must think there just are more Democrats who are ex-felons," chides Dutton.
In 2002, Unlock Your Vote launched its own public education campaign with a barrage of brochures, postcards and posters such as one claiming in bold letters, "It doesn't matter if you spent four years at Harvard or four years in Huntsville, your vote counts just the same." Its message is not only aimed at former felons but at parole officers, election officials, voter registration groups and service providers, many of whom still labor under the misconception that felons have lost their right to vote.
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."
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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."
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."