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Felony disenfranchisement is a policy that bars citizens from the ballot box based on criminal convictions. As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people were disenfranchised. This figure is an improvement from 2016 when 6.1 million people could not vote due to a felony conviction. The 15 percent decline results from new policies enacted by various states that curtail the practice of felony disenfranchisement. Despite this improvement, these numbers still signify that 2.3 percent of Americans old enough to vote do not have a say in the country’s democratic practices because of a felony record. Citizenship vests citizens with rights, duties, and privileges granted by the state, and many formerly incarcerated individuals cannot completely engage in their civic duties because of these oppressive policies.
Contrary to public notion, most disenfranchised individuals are not actually incarcerated. The vast majority are living in their communities on probation or parole and, nationally, 2.1 million of the disfranchised population have fully completed their sentences. Felony disenfranchisement laws vary by state. Maine and Vermont are the only two states allowing inmates to vote, therefore, zero percent of the voting-age population is disenfranchised by a felony record. The other 48 states impose some restrictions on voting rights — in prison, on parole, on probation, some or all of the above, or even after people complete these sentences. To highlight the difference between parole and probation, parole is for people who have been convicted of a crime and have already served a portion of their prison sentence, and probation is a community supervision option that does not require the convicted person to spend time in jail.
In Wisconsin, more than 63,000 residents cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement law, and this number includes approximately 45,000 people unable to vote because they are on felony paper. In Wisconsin, individuals who are “on paper” — on parole, probation, or extended supervision — lose their right to vote until they complete their post-incarceration sentence. The length of sentences for people on paper is three times longer than the national average and this figure does not account for racial disparity in sentencing which poses that Black people are sentenced more harshly than similarly-situated whites. Comparatively, Wisconsin has more restrictive felony disfranchisement laws than 20 other states, including neighboring states like Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The majority of Wisconsin’s disfranchised population is not in prison or jail but live in Wisconsin’s communities.
These individuals are tax-paying citizens, involved with the issues in their communities, but their effect is limited by the inability to vote. It is a modern reflection of taxation without representation. What may be considered more flawed is that those who are in prison are still counted for the census, and they are counted for the county that they are incarcerated in. By counting prisoners where they’re incarcerated, Wisconsin shifts voter clout from cities to small towns. This is despite the fact that ex-felons most often return home, usually to urban areas, after serving their sentence. The practice not only skews the population count but also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.
And many prisons are built in rural areas because of the large-scale use of incarceration to solve social problems and they have become a “growth industry” in rural America. Therefore, prisons are built at the expense of commodifying incarcerated individuals.
The numbers are worse all-around when examining the figures relating specifically to Black voters because the impact of felony disfranchisement falls disproportionately upon communities of color. Nationally, if incarceration rates hold steady, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be disfranchised at some point in their lives.
One out of every nine African Americans is disenfranchised in comparison to one out of every 50 Wisconsin voters, giving the state the 11th highest rate of disenfranchisement in the U.S. African Americans comprise 39 percent of the disfranchised population, even though they comprise only 5 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
On January 4th, 2022, Republican Representative Shae Sortwell and Senator Duey Stroebel introduced a pair of bills to the state legislature in the Assembly and Senate. The bills would amend a code (304.078) to further limit the voting rights for people convicted of a felony by only allowing such people the right to vote if they have paid off all fines, costs, surcharges, and restitution. Also in January, EXPO, or EX-incarcerated People Organizing, reintroduced legislation from 2019, Senate Bill 348, that would restore voting rights for individuals upon release if enacted. The bill failed to pass in 2019 but EXPO hoped that after reintroducing the legislation to the 2021-2022 legislature, the bill would pass this session.
Measures in the “Unlock the Vote” bill include addressing prison gerrymandering. EXPO wants the decennial census to count incarcerated individuals based on their last place of residence instead of where they are imprisoned given that many state prisons are located in majority-white areas and those federal dollars remain there long after individuals return home, often to urban areas like Milwaukee.
In a democratic state, voting is not a privilege as it is a right. Despite this, Nehemiah’s Assistant Director for Reentry Services Aaron Hicks had to register to vote himself after serving his sentence in prison and getting “off paper.” He never received official confirmation informing him that his right to vote was reinstated. While Hicks took the initiative to ensure his right to vote was reinstated, he believes many others in the position he was once in do not do the same based on what they have been through and a lack of education. The “Unlock the Vote” bill also wants to address ballot access for pre-trial detainees because many people do not realize those awaiting trial in state county jails are eligible to vote if they have not been convicted of a crime. In some cases, people serving certain misdemeanors in prisons still retain the right to vote. Some people are unaware that their rights have been restored when they got off of the paper. They believe there is permanent felony disenfranchisement in Wisconsin.
The lack of confirmation and education does not aid this process in encouraging disenfranchised felons to register to vote and is perceived almost as a scare tactic because they have the fear that they will be convicting a crime by voting.
“[Voting] gave me the feeling of belonging. I felt like I’m actually a part of the community now because I do have a voice,” Hicks said. “I can speak on the issues I disagree with despite if everyone agrees with [them] or not. I do have a say.”
He also acknowledges the other side of the coin, being that there is a lack of vested interest and engagement in civic engagement by formerly incarcerated individuals who face felony disenfranchisement because “[they] can care less about who’s running for the ballot when [they] can’t cast a vote.”
Disenfranchising ex-felons who have served their time offers little good to be gained. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated concerning the 1974 Supreme Court case, Richardson v. Ramirez: “It is doubtful…whether the state can demonstrate either a compelling or rational policy interest in denying former felons the right to vote. [Ex-offenders] have fully paid their debt to society. They are as much affected by the actions of government as any other citizen, and have as much of a right to participate in governmental decision-making. Furthermore, the denial of a right to vote to such persons is hindrance to the efforts of society to rehabilitate former felons and convert them into law-abiding and productive citizens.”
There is a link between voting participation and reoffense. People who voted after release from supervision were half as likely to be re-arrested as those who did not vote. Disenfranchising individuals after release is harmful to the reentry process. Ironically, felony disenfranchisement undermines the very behavior that society attempts to encourage with is engaging in the commitment to the larger social and political collective. Instead, it forces people who desire to engage in that behavior to relinquish the right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded the 14th and 15th amendments by banning racial discrimination in voting practices. The act was a response to the imposed limitations that prevented Black people in America from voting for nearly a century. Unfortunately, there are still vestiges of these institutional barriers — systemic, institutional, and interpersonal racism work to disproportionately disenfranchise Black people even though voting demonstrates an individual’s commitment to the institutions of American democracy.
Over the last decade, however, the national trend has been toward lowering barriers for the disenfranchised. Improving voting access for incarcerated people has accelerated. Since 1997, 25 states and Washington, D.C. have expanded eligibility, streamlining the restoration process or improved voter education. This includes 10 states that have repealed or amended their lifetime ban on former felons voting.
This recent momentum across the states should encourage us to keep pushing for change. Reform to felony disenfranchisement will most likely occur through legislative means. As states have been seriously considering proposals for reform (or abolishment of felony disenfranchisement altogether by allowing everyone in prison to vote, as they do in Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C.), voters should lobby state legislatures to introduce and pass legislation to take action.
There is also this sense of responsibility voters should assume in educating themselves about the history behind voting rights and disenfranchisement. Free the Vote is an inspiring and impactful film depicting just how unjust and racist it is to deny the right to vote to millions of people who are incarcerated. Formerly incarcerated individuals, scholars, politicians and advocates come together to discuss their experiences impacted by disenfranchisement and the importance of your voice being heard.
Lastly, make sure to check out EXPO’s website for more information about how you can help and get involved with their team members to push forward the “Unlock the Vote” bill here. If you want to learn more about felony disenfranchisement, additional resources are available and listed below.
(WATCH) Reentry Lunch and Learn Session: Voter Rights (Hosted by Nehemiah)
(WATCH) Free the Vote film
(LISTEN) Black Like Me Podcast Episode S2 Ep. 30: Missing Voices: The Voting Rights of the Formerly Incarcerated
(LISTEN) EXPO Radio