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Many In Wisconsin Jails Have The Right To Vote, But Few Actually Do

Roll of "I voted" circular stickers on a gray background for the November elections in the United States.
Joaquin Corbalan
Adobe Stock
According to Wisconsin law, those who are incarcerated have a right to vote unless they’ve convicted of a felony.

A new report released Wednesday found that many jail administrators have taken small, but important, steps to increase ballot access for incarcerated individuals. However, authors say troubling voting barriers persist for the thousands of people in Wisconsin’s jails. The report, titled "Ballots for All: Ensuring Eligible Wisconsinites in Jail Have Equal Access to Voting," was released by All Voting is Local, a project in collaboration with the ACLU, The American Constitution Society and The League of Women Voters.

According to Wisconsin law, those who are incarcerated have a right to vote unless they’ve convicted of a felony. Meaning that of the approximately 13,000 people incarcerated in Wisconsin jails, at least half are eligible to vote. The organization All Voting is Local is fighting to get those eligible to vote and incarcerated to cast a ballot.

"It is imperative for us to focus our latest effort on geo base voting, and to share our findings of what voting from jail consists of, particularly in the state of Wisconsin," says state director Shantay Nielsen.

According to the report, 70% of the 55 counties surveyed in 2021 indicated having policies in place for jail voting, which is a significant increase from the previous year. Yet, those policies did not necessarily translate to voters actually casting their ballots. Out of the thousands eligible to vote, only 50 voted from jail in the 2020 elections. Nielson says that’s a problem.

“Residents of local jails are still taxed and used to allocate resources, therefore they should have the freedom to have their voices heard through a ballot. The fact that it will take a bit of extra work is not an excuse to silence them,” says Nielson.

David Carlson is an organizer for the ACLU. Prior to his work advocating for voting rights, he says he had actually only voted once in his life, and it wasn’t because of apathy he deeply valued civic duty.

"I did serve seven years in the military with two tours, combat tours to Iraq. And so I know quite a bit about it — engagement in terms of serving your country and having your voice heard in that sense," says Carlson.

But after his service in the military, Carlson says it was his own criminal conviction history that kept him from voting. "I had only actually voted once in my life. I have been, I guess what you would call it de facto disenfranchised or disenfranchised at times, due to my status after conviction history," he says.

Carlson has been actively working to change the situation for incarcerated people who are eligible to cast a ballot. Most recently in Eau Claire, he helped the county jail create a very detailed jail-based voting procedure and jail-wide voting events. "With community partners, in the Eau Claire County, Chippewa Valley votes to be specific, we approached the sheriff's department, and we're able to host to jail voting events," Carlson explains.

The Eau Claire County Jail is a success story, but both Carlson and Nielson want to ensure that jail voting is a standard practice, not a rare exception. The report released by the ACLU makes substantial recommendations — outlining steps jails can take to more sufficiently address the many barriers to the ballot for eligible Wisconsinites in county jails; such as actually having a formal policy in place on how jails will deal with voting and designating an employee to oversee the process.

The groups also strongly encourages the Legislature to pass legislation to extend voting infrastructure to serve voters in jail. However, that seems unlikely given the Republican majority. GOP lawmakers have been fighting for tougher restrictions on voting, amid a nationwide systemic push for bills, which critics argue would limit voting rights.

Angelina Mosher Salazar joined WUWM in 2018 as the Eric Von Fellow. She was then a reporter with the station until 2021.
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