‘Should we bear the burden of our past when our present has been involved in fixing the future?’
Lewis Conway Jr., a formerly incarcerated man, is challenging disenfranchisement by running for public office in Austin, Texas.
“We want people with arrests and convictions to engage in the democratic process,” Bill Cobb, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in an article by Jordan Smith for theintercept.com “Lewis has dedicated his life not only to serving his community, but specifically to leveraging his leadership in a way that provides hope to people who have been where he’s been, who have served time in our nation’s jails and prisons. We … need a lot more Lewis Conways.”
An estimated 100 million people nationwide have faced disenfranchised because of contact with the criminal justice system. This often results in the loss of access to housing, employment opportunities and full participation in the democratic process — sometimes forever.
Conway, now 48, served eight years in prison for voluntary manslaughter and 12 years on parole. Now’s he is running for an Austin City Council seat representing the neighborhood where he grew up.
“We want people with arrests and convictions to engage in the democratic process”
Conway said his purpose in running, “is to give people who have been historically marginalized, historically penalized and criminalized an opportunity to become active participants in a participatory democracy,” according to the article.
A vague 33-year-old Texas Election Code section may or may not stand in Conway’s path. While Texas restores voting rights once a prison sentence is completed, to be eligible to run for office, a person must not have been ‘“finally convicted” of a felony from which they have not been “pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.”
The Texas law does not define “resulting disabilities.”
According to Ricco Garcia’s research on disabilities, Conway may need his voting and jury duty rights restored to run. Conway’s voting rights were reinstated once he completed parole in 2013. However, it is unclear how jury duty rights are returned.
“So are those disabilities? And how do you get them back?” asks Ricco Garcia, Conway’s attorney, who took the case pro bono. “I don’t know.”
The Texas Secretary of State’s office cannot define these disabilities either.
“There’s nowhere either in existing case law or any statues in the Texas Election Code that says exactly what ‘released from the resulting disabilities’ means, or how that is supposed to happen,” Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office, told reporter Smith.
A governor’s pardon could restore all of Conway’s rights and clear up the issue, but things like that hardly happen in Texas, according to the article.
Fighting for the rights of incarcerated people is not new for Conway. After struggling to get a steady job because of his felony conviction, he ended up floating through varying jobs, from working at Walmart to being a DJ and a self-help book author.
He ended up joining the Reentry Advocacy Project and Second Chance Democrats of Austin in the fight against mass incarceration and prison privatization, according to theintercept.com.
In 2016, Conway’s grassroots efforts helped get the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance passed. The regulation bars private employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until late in the hiring process.
“We feel like the burden that our campaign is carrying is, of course, unfair [and] it’s definitely one that other candidates are not going to have to deal with,” said Conway. “Should we bear the burden of our past when our present has been involved in fixing the future?”