With several Republican-led states threatening to jail formerly incarcerated individuals for voting, even though they do have the right to vote—depending on the state—several individuals who have completed their sentences and fully paid their debt to society are unclear as to whether or not they can legally vote.
For expert insights, so our readers can know definitively whether the formerly incarcerated in Texas can or can’t vote, the Defender reached out to State Rep. Harold Dutton, who 25 years ago, authored legislation to tackle this issue.
DEFENDER: Can the formerly incarcerated vote in Texas? And if so, what must they do to be able to vote?
DUTTON: Well, let me take you back to 1997, when George Bush was governor of Texas. I passed House Bill 1001 which restored the rights of ex-felons to vote in Texas such that when they complete their sentence, whether you complete it on probation, parole or confinement, or any combination thereof, you are now allowed to register to vote the next day. It’s my understanding that TDCJ, when they send you’re your discharge papers, which means you’re fully discharged from your sentence, they’re also including a voter registration application.
DEFENDER: Why do so many mistakenly believe the formerly incarcerated in Texas can’t vote?
DUTTON: Because in some states ex-felons can’t vote. Also, I tell people that in Texas, for ex-felons, if the jury gives them 10 years, society gives them a life sentence. Because if you’re an ex-felon, there are certain things you can’t do and certain things people don’t let you do it. The fact that you have completely paid off your debt to society, that’s of no consequence to some people despite what the laws say.
DEFENDER: Are there any differences for the formerly incarcerated who served time for a felony compared to those who served time for a misdemeanor?
DUTTON: The law says, if you are convicted of a felony, at that point you lose your right to vote. House Bill 1001 re-establishes the opportunity for you to re-register to vote. So, I need to make clear that [for the individual convicted of a felony who has completed their sentence] you are now allowed to register to vote. If you don’t register, then you won’t be voting. If you were convicted of a misdemeanor, you don’t ever lose your right to vote.
DEFENDER: Why is the Sept. 10 voter registration event important?
DUTTON: One of the reasons they take away your right to vote when you are convicted of a felony is because that right is so important. It’s so important that you participate in this democracy. And you best do that by voting. So, we’re trying to register everybody, but we certainly have a primary focus on those who are formally incarcerated, who have completed their sentence. By and large, what we found is that a number of those people who fall in that category, they were not the only ones not registered. Their family members weren’t registered. Because the family members had turned off on the system also. So, we’ll be registering the ex-felon and many of their family members. We’re gonna be getting a number of people who are going to be sworn in as voter registrars so they can go out and beat the bushes and find these ex-felons to make sure they’re aware, number one, that they have the right to register the vote, and two, that we sign them up.
DEFENDER: Do you have any specific goals for this voter registration event?
DUTTON: When I passed the bill, one of the problems I found later on was that most of the ex-felons didn’t know they could register to vote. So, I’ve spent the last 25 years since that bill was passed trying to make sure to get the message out. So, I hope that the message gets out that everybody who is eligible to vote should do so, but especially the people who the system has beat down to some extent. They ought to be at the front of the line registering to vote, and at the time of voting, they ought to show up.
DEFENDER: Where can people go to get more information about the event?
DUTTON: They can call my office at 713-692-9192. And I hope that they will all come; everybody will come. Everybody who is not registered, please, please come and vote. We have an organization we started called One Vote Matters. And the reason we did that is because every vote matters. So, we’re going to be insisting that people who need to register to vote, we’re going to try to register every one of them.
In Harris County, estimates are we have some 900,000 people who are not registered, who are eligible. We’ve reached out to all 30 or so organizations that deal with ex-offenders. We’re soliciting them to become partners with us so that we can all get out and make a dent. Because I suspect that many of the 900,000 citizens who are eligible vote, who are not registered in Harris County, that that number is extremely high when you look at eligible ex-felons.
It’s like I told George Bush when he was governor (of Texas). He called me over to the Governor’s Mansion and said, “Dutton, why should I sign this bill and not veto it?” I said, “Well governor, you believe the system is fair, don’t you?” He said, “Well yeah, I believe it’s fair.” I said, “Then that means it ought to have as many ex-felons who are Republicans as Democrats.” He said, “I figured you had a reason,” so, he signed the bill into law.
FACTS ON VOTING & THE FORMERLY INCARCERATED
The lack of uniformity regarding voting rights and the formerly incarcerated adds to the confusion of those trying to figure out if they can or can’t vote. Oftentimes, it depends on where you live.
- In Texas, House Bill (HB) 1001 restored the rights of ex-felons to vote once they completed their sentence and registered to vote.
- There are 17 states that automatically restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated upon completion of their sentence, including prison, parole and probation. In those states, everyone can vote except for those currently in prison.
- There are 21 states that automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison.
- In 17 states, voting rights restoration can depend on the date or type of conviction, repayment of fines, the outcome of an individual petition to the governor or gubernatorial pardon.
- In 19 states, including Texas, people with felony convictions can vote upon completion of their sentence.
- In seven states, some people with felony convictions cannot vote.
- In two states, New York and Connecticut, people in prison and on parole cannot vote. All other people with criminal convictions, including people on probation, can vote.
- In two states, Maine and Vermont, and the District of Columbia, everyone has the right to vote, including individuals in prison for a felony conviction.
- In two states, Kentucky and Virginia, all people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised (i.e., they can never vote again).
VOTER REGISTRATION EVENT
Date: Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022
Time: 10a.m. – 5p.m.
Place: Finnigan Park (4900 Providence St., Houston, TX 77020)
For More Info Contact: State Rep. Harold Dutton’s Office @ 713-692-9192 or Deborah LaDay @ 281-638-6862
For a map showing the different states and their laws regarding voting ad the formerly incarcerated, visit aclu.org.