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Vague State Law Aside, A Convicted Felon Will Be on The Ballot in Austin

After his candidacy was challenged, convicted felon Lewis Conway Jr. was cleared by the Austin city clerk on Tuesday.

Lewis Conway Jr., a candidate running for Austin City Council, is the first formerly incarcerated person in Texas to run for public office.

At first glance, it may seem typical that Lewis Conway Jr. got his name on the ballot for a seat on the Austin City Council —he paid the filing fee and turned in his application before the deadline. But Conway’s success Tuesday is unique for one big reason: He’s a convicted felon.

Conway, who was convicted in 1993 of voluntary manslaughter, is at the center of a situation Texas has never seen before. According to Texas’ election code, a person is only eligible to run for office if he or she has not been “finally convicted” of a felony “from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.”

It’s the “resulting disabilities” portion of the code that’s caused people to scratch their heads — there’s no legal precedent defining the term. But after a brief challenge on Friday by the city clerk, Conway has been cleared to continue his campaign.

"I am happy that Austin is standing up for the nearly four million Texans affected by our criminal justice system,” Conway said in a statement. “Our campaign is about more than just an election — it's about diversity in leadership, belief in a fair chance, and bringing the sentence to an end. I have been released from parole and my voting rights have been restored. I have served my time and now I am ready to serve my community."

The statute regarding the eligibility of a felon is one Conway’s campaign called “ambiguous, unchallenged and potentially unconstitutional.” Because there’s no clear definition of resulting disabilities, nor a prior legal case to help determine it, Conway has pressed forward.

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, agreed that the issue is unclear and without precedent.

And Conway’s case might not end up providing much broader clarity. His opponents vying for the East Austin seat would have had the opportunity to challenge Conway’s candidacy in court, but they told the Austin Chronicle earlier this month that they wouldn’t fight his eligibility.

After months of the Conway campaign waiting for a challenge, City Clerk Jannette Goodall sent Conway an email on Friday, citing his inability to meet the requirements to run under the Texas election code. Goodall gave Conway until Tuesday to prove his eligibility. He submitted what he believed was that proof Monday, indicating that he has been released from “resulting disabilities” by serving out his parole and having his voting rights reinstated.

A spokesperson with the City of Austin said Goodall met with city attorneys and came to the determination that the city had no reason to question his eligibility.

In 1991, Conway stabbed a man at an Austin apartment complex and called the police immediately after the incident, claiming self-defense. He confessed and accepted a plea deal, serving 20 years for the crime. He went on to spend eight years in prison and 12 years on parole before completing his sentence in 2013.

Conway, who works as a criminal justice organizer at Grassroots Leadership, says he will make criminal justice reform one of the main focal points of his campaign.

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