Matt Rothschild

Inmates In Jail Have A Right To Vote

Unless they are felons. But state policies make it difficult for them to vote.

By - Jun 30th, 2021 05:12 pm
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Wisconsin needs to make it easier for people who are in jail to vote.

Unless they’ve been already convicted of a felony, they retain the right to vote.

But “lackluster administrative policies and procedures prevent the vast majority of these individuals from registering to vote, casting their ballot, and having that ballot counted,” according to an excellent new report by the ACLU of Wisconsin, All Voting Is Local, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

The report, entitled “Ballots for All: Ensuring Eligible Wisconsinites in Jail Have Equal Access to Voting,” notes that the number of inmates who are de-facto disenfranchised is high.

There are about 13,000 people in jail in Wisconsin, the report notes. Only a miniscule number of those have been able to exercise their right to vote.

“Approximately 60 people registered from jail, and 50 people voted from jail in the 2020 elections,” the report notes.

This de-facto disenfranchisement disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

“More than half have yet to be convicted of a crime but are forced to remain in jail because they are too poor to post cash bail,” the report notes. “Black and Native American Wisconsinites are jailed at nearly seven times the rate of white Wisconsinites.”

In 2020, only 29 counties had policies in place support jail-based voting.

But because of inquiries by the groups that wrote this report and by other activists, things have improved over the last year. Now 39 counties have such policies. “We are moving in the right direction,” says the report.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The report gives specific recommendations for steps county jails should take. These include providing voter registration opportunities in jail, as well as opportunities to request an absentee ballot.

The report also gives specific recommendations for the Legislature to take, including allowing government-issued jail IDs to be used as a valid voter ID and to allow in-person voting on Election Day. (And on a related issue, the report recommends that prisoners who have committed felonies also be allowed to vote. According to the report, “69,000 people are currently prohibited from voting” because they are serving a felony sentence. “It is past time for Wisconsin to end felony disenfranchisement and guarantee the freedom to vote for all.”)

And the report recommends steps that election administrators should take to facilitate jail-based voting, including hosting “registration and absentee ballot request events in county jails.”

As the report says in its conclusion, every eligible Wisconsin voter should be given the opportunity to cast a ballot.

And that includes people who are in jail.

Let’s end de-facto disenfranchisement.

Matt Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us