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WI Groups Push for Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated

Silhouette of concertina barbed wire on a prison fence
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Per Wisconsin Department of Corrections data, as of June 2021, about one-fifth of the people on community supervision in Wisconsin live in and around Milwaukee.

Wisconsin's spring election is next week, but thousands of residents will be barred from casting their ballots.

Wisconsin does not allow anyone convicted of a felony who is serving out their sentence on parole or probation to vote, something a new legislative package hopes to address. The "Unlock the Vote" package would permit people out on "community supervision," a term for parole and probation, to cast a ballot.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, speaking at a legislative lobbying day Tuesday, said some parolees can be on community supervision for decades.

"Sometimes, people are on papers for 20 and 30 years; it's not just six months and done," Emerson observed. "Then we get back to taxation without representation, which was what our original revolution was about in this country."

According to the Department of Corrections, more than 68,000 Wisconsinites are on probation, parole or extended supervision. The bills will not pass anytime soon, as the Legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until 2023, after this year's spring and fall elections.

On lobbying day, advocates were able to speak directly with legislators. It was organized by the group Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO).

Ramiah Whiteside, prison outreach coordinator for the group, said he has spent more than two decades in Wisconsin's penal system, split between incarceration and community supervision. He noted he lost his right to vote when he was 17, before he had the chance to cast a ballot.

"They took my right to vote until the year 2042," Whiteside stressed. "For going on three years now, I've paid taxes, and I'll continue to pay taxes because that's what you do when you invest in our republic. However, who represents me?"

Those convicted of felonies in Wisconsin are permitted to vote after they serve the full length of their sentences, either in prison or on community supervision. In addition to restoring voting rights for those on parole and probation, the legislation also would establish voter-registration programs for county jails and redefine how the state counts people incarcerated during the decennial redistricting process.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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