Before the Friday was through, Robert C. Dawson, T.C. Calvert, and Martin Casteñeda must have spoken these five words at least 500 times: "Are you registered to vote?"

At the Handy Andy at Rigsby and W.W. White, just three days before the registration deadline, the trio held court at a red, white, and blue table, and tried to beat their goal of convincing 1,000 people that despite big-money politics, political corruption, and ill-run elections — yes, their votes do count.

"Are you registered to vote?" Dawson asked a man headed for the exit.

"No, I'm an ex-con," he quietly replied, tentatively approaching the table with his small bag of groceries.

"Are you off paper?" inquired Calvert.

"I was on parole five years, but I've done all my time."

"Well, then you can register to vote."

Calvert pulled out a registration form, wrote down the man's name, address, and birthdate, and handed him a temporary card. "I didn't know," the man said. "Somewhere I saw papers that said I lost all my rights."

The common misperception that ex-cons can't vote, and other factors — most notably, apathy — are keeping thousands of eligible people out of the voting booth and excluding them from the public process. National organizations, the NAACP and LULAC, and local groups, Neighborhoods First Alliance, ACORN, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, are trying to educate and lure back — or persuade for the first time — disenfranchised minority voters and other groups consistently underserved by elected officials: the working poor, single mothers, blue-collar workers, young people from 18 to 25, and in particular, former felons — who, although they seldom know it — can vote once they complete the terms of their sentence, including parole.

When minorities and underserved citizens vote, their numbers have a chance to influence public policy on issues such as civil rights, labor, education, criminal justice, and health care, in a system which currently fails to address their needs. When they don't cast a ballot, the cycle continues: Laws and policies exclude them, and further alienate them from what is their only voice — their vote.

"Are you registered to vote?"

The woman ignores Casteñeda.

"Do it for your children."

She continues her trek to the grocery aisles.

National fiascos such as the 2000 Florida ballot mess — and subsequent suspicious presidential election results — and local snafus like the PGA Village petition — where elected officials brazenly ignored the voice of the people — have left voters feeling burned by the system.

Well-financed politicians raise more money than some small towns' annual budgets (see Quickies, below), donors buy influence, and promises made on the campaign trail disappear in the mist, once the candidate wields power.

As a result, only 47 percent of Bexar County eligible voters did so in the 2000 election, which is up from the 1998 figure of about 28 percent. The highest turnout in the last 15 years is 1992 presidential election with 71 percent.

Ricardo Castañon, regional director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is working with ACORN and Neighborhood First Alliance to get out the much-coveted Latino vote. "Politics turned them off," he explained. "But one of the biggest factors is that people don't have the interest or time to care about politics, when they have more interest in making a living. I call it the "para que" syndrome. But, yes it does matter. The more you vote the more they pay attention to you."

William B. Johnson, who is active on the East Side, attributes voter apathy to the candidates — particularly local officials. "Our politicians have a lot to do with it. The PGA we collected solid signatures and lo and behold they found a way to get around it."

A recent Campaigns for People report showed that most campaign donations come from wealthy Anglos. Translation: Public policy is going to reflect those contributors' viewpoint because they bought it.

The working class cannot buy power, noted Calvert. "We're trying to make sure the common folk in the community still have a voice. They don't have $5,000 or $10,000, so the only they have is their vote."

While many younger voters take the right for granted — or don't think about it at all — older African-Americans remember an era when voting meant at best, handing over part of their paycheck, or at worst, death.

Dawson paid the poll tax, which before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, required black voters to pay money before they could vote. "It was a means to deter you," said Dawson. "I paid it to remove the barrier. You looked at it as a way of life rather than being put down. Like the justice system now."

Johnson explained that his parents paid a poll tax, about $1 or $1.25. "There were places you couldn't even vote, let alone pay a poll tax," he said. "I always remind people that folks have literally died attempting to vote. By not doing so is stepping on the graves of those who have died.

"But we should vote and vote intelligently, which doesn't mean pulling one lever. Be selective on the issues."

"Are you registered to vote?"

"No, I'm an ex-con."

"Are you off paper?"

"No, I'm still on parole."

"OK, but when you're done with parole, remember you can vote."

Getting former felons out of jail and into the ballot box is a top priority for the NAACP National Voter Fund, which has launched a campaign to inform ex-cons of their rights to vote — if they live in the right state.

Voter registration volunteer Martin Castañeda signs up Maria Carmen Zuniga to the voter rolls during a recent voter registration drive at a Handy Andy store on the city's East Side.

Nearly 5 million Americans have lost their right to vote because of felony convictions. Since the U.S. government has waged its losing war on drugs, minorities, particularly African-American men, have been jailed in disproportionately numbers, especially for felony drug offenses. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1985 and 1995, the number of African-Americans and Hispanics sentenced to state prisons for drug offenses rose 700 percent, compared to 300 percent for white drug offenders. Nationwide, according to the NAACP, 13 percent of African-American men have been disqualified from voting.

"We've seen a proliferation of the prison-industrial complex," said Claude Foster, the NAACP's Region 6 Texas voter empowerment coordinator. "If you leave a segment of society out of the voting booth that will have an opinion, it `policy` will be skewed not in their favor."

Although it is legal in Texas, not all states give ex-cons the right to vote. Several, states, including Maryland, are reforming their criminal justice laws to allow it, but in others, such as Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, more than 30 percent of African American men have lost right to vote.

During the infamous 2000 election, Florida officials used that state's law prohibiting former felons from voting to illegally deny thousands access to the ballot box — because they had been mistakenly identified as ex-cons.

In Texas, ex-offenders have been permitted to vote since 1997. This is significant, as 400,000 people are in jail or on parole in Texas. Eventually, most of these offenders will be released and try to reintegrate into their communities.

Yet most Texas ex-offenders don't know about the law, because no one in the criminal justice system tells them. "Nobody wants to be a friend of the ex-felon community," Foster noted, adding the recent campaign is targeting major cities where freed prisoners return. "There has been no publicity about their rights under the law, so the civil rights organizations have to fill in those gaps."

The NAACP plans to introducing legislation during the next session to require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to be a voter registration agency. The law would require TDCJ to offer qualified offenders a voter registration card, and sign them up, if eligible. The proposed legislation would also require posters and other literature informing felons of their voting rights to be placed in parole offices.

"Are you registered to vote?" Casteñeda asks a woman passing by.


"Did you remarry? Did you move?"

"You're a blessing in disguise," she said. "I did move."

Voting irregularities — closed polling places, long lines, confusing ballots — have driven away many potential voters. Last year, Calvert met with Bexar County Election Director Cliff Borosky to address polling issues — some were closed, others had unexpectedly changed locations — during the 2000 election. Yet during this year's primary, many polling places didn't open because workers didn't show up, other locations had been changed with little or no public notice, leaving hundreds of voters not knowing where to vote. Lines wound around the sides of buildings. Eventually, some people just gave up and went home without casting their ballots.

Other Texas cities have seen similar problems — especially Houston — that prompted the NAACP to hold voter intimidation hearings around the state. The NAACP has recorded complaints of registered voters not listed, problems with mail-in ballots, polling places changing without notice or clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. This election, NAACP members again will staff phone banks for voters to report irregularities or intimidation at 1-877-9MYVOTE. "We're constantly working with election officials," Foster said. "But often someone says someone else is doing it, and no one is accountable."

Reformers are pushing for same-day registration, well-staffed and well-publicized polling places, and easy-to-understand ballots to curb the voting decline. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed the Martin Luther King Jr. Equal Protection Voting Act. It updates federal election requirements regarding voting machines, ballots, and allots money to states for the required changes. (On the downside, the act also requires voters produce a photo ID, which many don't have.)

Yet it is more than the sometimes-unwieldy voting process that has repulsed potential voters. To get citizens involved in politics again will require curtailing negative ads, demystified the issues and political process, and voting in elected officials who represent their constituencies, not their campaign donors.

But it will be easier to correct the technical aspects of voting than to overhaul an entire Congress or state legislature. "You become a skeptic," Casteñeda said. "But I'm not going to lose faith in a system with a lot of faults."

"Are you registered to vote?" he asks another shopper.

"I vote every year," joked a woman, wheeling her cart. "Whatever good it does me."

Citizens can pressure officials to fix the system's technical glitches, but overhauling the greed, corruption, and waywardness of the powermongers — that is the voters' challenge.