Thursday, March 06, 2008

Half million Texans disenfranchised from voting in primary elections: Harms democracy and public safety

The extraordinary turnout at Tuesday's elections and the spectacle of 1.1 million Democrats participating in their precinct conventions left the state abuzz, but over at Talk Left, Jeralyn rightly reminds us to remember those who weren't allowed to cast a ballot. She points to a new public awareness project on felon disenfranchisement, i.e., taking away felons' right to vote, and reminds us how many disenfranchised felons were disallowed from participating in Texas' primary elections:
Over half a million Texan citizens will be unable to vote due to a felony conviction. Over 165,000 of those disfranchised Texans are black,” said Laleh Ispahani, Senior Policy Counsel with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Disfranchisement runs contrary to fundamental precepts of democracy, human rights, and of giving people a second chance, a chance at true rehabilitation.”
Half a million people stripped of the vote is a lot of folks! However, I felt compelled to defend our beloved state, somewhat, on this point, replying in the comments that:
Texas has a good re-enfranchisement law compared to many states. Felons can vote again as soon as they're off paper, i.e., when they've completed either their sentence, parole, or their probation term. Quite a few other states ban for years afterward or even for life.

The reason we have half a million ineligible is we have ten year probation terms, so that's basically how many probationers and parolees are out there. But one in 11 Texans has a felony record, and the vast majority of them are eligible to vote.
However, that doesn't mean we couldn't do better. Governor Perry vetoed legislation that would have given ex-offenders notification and a voter registration card when they became eligible to vote. (Offenders already get a packet of information from TDCJ when they get "off paper," and the bill would have included notice of voting eligibility and a voter registration card in the packet.)

That insensible decision, IMO, was made purely out of political calculation, hoping to reduce the number of (supposed) new Democratic voters at the margins. However, from a public safety standpoint it makes little sense to discourage voting at all. If it's intended as punishment, it's a poor one; half of Americans don't vote even when they're allowed to, so it's not like you're taking anything from them that affects their daily lives.

Felons should be allowed to vote IMO even when they're on probation and parole, and it wouldn't bother me if mail ballots were cast from prison. (That happens right now only in Maine and Vermont. Probationers and parolees can vote in 13 additional states.) I don't see the logic of implementing a punishment that requires offenders to behave anti-socially.

I don't support re-enfranchisement because I think prisoners would vote for one or the other party, but because the act of voting requires public engagement. You must a) care about the activities of government and b) educate yourself about the candidates and issues in order to cast a ballot, and that process itself I believe has rehabilitative effects. Simply caring about something other than yourself - even if it's an election - might be a learning experience for many whose narcissism, bad decisions and immature behavior have already dug them into deep legal holes.

We're talking about a lot of people here: Roughly one in 20 Texas adults are incarcerated, on probation or parole. And they all have to live with the government we elect just like everybody else.

(See a state by state guide on disenfranchisement laws.)


Anonymous said...

I wonder if taking voting rights from felons is Constitutional. Again are felons some of the people mentioned in the U.S. Constitution? Coupled with the no taxation without representation does the loss of voting rights for felons mean they no longer are subject to any government tax? Interpretation of our Constitution is in the hands of people so far removed from the average citizen it is hard for us average people to understand.

For a long time I have come to see the name of our country as a lie. There are many classes of people excluded from the “United” States. Fragmenting society makes it easier to control. If the people were truly united in this country, un-convicted felons who run this country would be out of a job! I bet there are more than a few of our elected officials who have committed felony crimes. There are so many felonies to choose from many may not know they have committed a crime.

On a brighter note the U.S. still beats living in Russia.

Anonymous said...

Every citizen of age should vote, period.

Hooray for Main and Vermont!

Does the ACLU work to obtain the vote for felons, in or out of prison?

Anonymous said...

"On a brighter note the U.S. still beats living in Russia."

Except they imprison a lot higher percentage of their population. Today, we run the gulags.

Anonymous said...

Since you are talking about voting, I have a tidbit of news to share with all of you. This news came to me from a reliable source in the news area, Mr. John Coles campaign money at least $40,000.00 to $75,000.00 came from gambling interests. Now are we not glad an honest man won his seat again.

Talk about special interests, this is the top of special interests and some of the wealthy have wanted gambling in Texas for many years.

I just thought I might share this tidbit with some of you who thought you knew who you were really voting for when you voted for Cole against an honest man who works for us and not special interests.

Anonymous said...

I would think when the Legislators begin to work again, well some of work all the time and others only when they are in Austin,all pens should be removed from Mr. Perry's office. That would stop him from vetoing good bills and let them pass without his signature. He vetoed some very good bills last term, some written by Rep. Jerry Madden and Senator Whitmire that would have helped ease the prison crisis.

Do not believe there is not a crises, there is. When you have more visitor's cars in the parking lot than employee cars, that poses a big problem.

Prisons are over full and some are having to sleep in the day rooms with no way they can sleep at all. Most work the next day and have to be at work early and get no rest. I do not believe sleep depreviation is part of anyone's sentence, yet this is happening.

So, designate someone to remove all the pens from Gov. Perry and don't give him a crayon, he will use that also, and maybe we can pass some bills that will help get Texas out of the financial mess we are in due to so many being in prison and do not belong there. Thousands have been paroled, but the BPP set a date later than a few days after they are granted parole and many think this is because of a certain job they are doing for the prison.

Reduce prison crowding and hire people who would work, but need enough money to support their family and you won't have as many problems. There is a reported 4,000 open jobs in TDCJ, but I would guess this is an understatement, if the truth were told, there are more openings than 4,000. Also, stop dieseling Inmates, when the prisons get full, some are loaded in buses and moved around until the count is over and then taken back where they were previously housed. That is both a disgrace and dishonest. Someone get a grip on the BPP and TDCJ and get some of the people who have been paroled out and home with their families!!

Anonymous said...

As usual, behind it all is the economics of the situation. The DrugWar was a drain on revenues long before the Global War on Terror was begun. (the only people profiting were the ones running prison industries, and that because they were effectively subsidized by the taxpayer, as they're not paying all the costs involved in incarceration, such as legal liabilities).

Now, it's even more of a drain, at a time during a serious economic downturn that is beginning to look like the mid- to late-1970's, all over again. The money to run the DrugWar, the prime engine for incarceration in this country, is running out. And that means many non-violent offenders who are now in prison will have to be let out in order to keep the proven violent ones in. And that means returning the non-violent ones to society...and giving them a reason to have a stake in that society, lest they decide they have been so ostracized, they choose to make their anger known in much more destructive ways. Returning voting rights after serving time is a great way to avoid that.

Unknown said...

Sorry kaptinemo - it just isn't gonna happen. They use proven violent offenders as leverage for tax hikes. At least they do in Oregon. All the newscasters comment about not enough money to keep sex offenders, murderers and gang members safe in prison whenever a funding measure is being proposed. Why would they let out all the drug offenders? That would imply that they didn't belong there in the first place.