The COVID-19 crisis has given rise to a set of new and unforeseen threats to the civil rights and civil liberties of all Wisconsinites – even a threat to our lives, especially for people of color, and members of other vulnerable communities. 

At the ACLU of Wisconsin, we have been taking all of these challenges head-on -- fighting for free and fair elections that don’t jeopardize people’s health, demanding that vulnerable people in prisons and jails are released so their sentence doesn’t become a death sentence, and more.

This page highlights the work we've done in response to the pandemic. This has been a challenging time for so many Wisconsinites, and there are even more trying times ahead. Throughout this crisis, we will remain steadfast in our defense of liberty and committed to supporting the civil rights and well-being of everyone in our state.

At the national level, the ACLU and its affiliates across the country are leading the charge to address COVID-19's impact on civil rights and civil liberties in a broad variety of contexts, from racial justice to surveillance to immigration detention.  You can learn more about this work at aclu.org.

Please also refer to our COVID-19 Resource Guide, a comprehensive list of resources, organizations, services, and programs that are available to people across the state to help get Wisconsin through this pandemic.

 

1. Voting Rights

Q.Voting Rights
A.

The ACLU has always been at the forefront of protecting people’s fundamental right to vote, but the way Wisconsin’s April election unfolded made that task particularly daunting. Fraught with widespread chaos and confusion, the entire process was a danger to public health and an affront to democracy, disenfranchising thousands -- disproportionately people of color and people with disabilities -- and increasing the potential for the disease to spread.

As soon as the scale of the pandemic threat became clear, the ACLU went to work: on our own, and in coalition with key allies. Together, we tried to mitigate the harm posed by having an election, ensuring that people could vote.

We called for absentee ballots to be sent to every registered voter and advocated for other measures that would make it easier to stay safe and vote from home, like waving the witness signature requirement and extending deadlines.

At the same time that we pushed to make voting by mail easier, we worked in court to make sure that in-person voting remained an option for those who need it, recognizing that going to the polls is sometimes the only option for members of marginalized communities.

As the public health implications of holding an election became more clear, we advocated for much better emergency planning, and we supported postponing the election, to safeguard both the health and civil rights of voters and pollworkers.

On election day, our Election Protection team went out to various polling sites, watching for and addressing problems. In addition, we also worked to assemble a group of lawyers that took voters’ questions and made sure that elections were being conducted lawfully.

Now that the election has passed, we are working to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. We have hired five Rights for All organizers who are helping engage traditionally disenfranchised communities, and sent recommendations to the Wisconsin Election Commission, demonstrating the problems voters had and offering a set of proposed changes that would protect people’s health and preserve voting rights in future elections.

On Mau 11th, Wisconsin Election Protection -- a coalition of voting rights organizations of which we are a part -- published a comprehensive report on the April 7th election. Among the findings documented in the report were major shortcomings in the absentee ballot process, a paucity of poll workers, a lack of clear and consistent voting information, and several additional factors. The evaluation also offered a series of recommendations meant to enhance the integrity and safety of future elections amid the pandemic.

We have continued our voting rights work in preparation for elections that have taken place since April, remaining committed to educating voters and advocating for safe, accessible voting which protects voters and our rights during COVID-19. We commended the WEC for voting to send eligible voters absentee ballots and are pushing the WEC as well as municipal clerks to implement neccessary policy changes.

2. Smart Justice

Q.Smart Justice
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Around the country, COVID-19 has spread at unparalleled rates inside jails, prisons and detention centers. These facilities are often overcapacity, unsanitary, not conducive to social distancing, and notoriously bad at providing healthcare. 

Advocacy

Since the start of the pandemic, we have been calling upon state leaders to put in place measures that would combat the spread of an outbreak in correctional facilities, providing the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the 72 County Sheriffs who oversee the local jails recommendations for how to best prepare facilities to handle the virus. 

Shortly thereafter, we called on Governor Evers and other criminal legal system stakeholders to heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

Throughout this work, we have insisted that public officials respond to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of individuals identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis. According to a new ACLU data model, COVID-19 could claim an additional 100,00 lives if jail populations aren't immediately and dramatically reduced.

We've also been working to address the profound racial disparities within our criminal legal system. On April 20th, the ACLU released a landmark report on marijuana arrests which found that Black people in Wisconsin are 4.2 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Those deep inequities are central to why we are continuing to advocate for legalization in Wisconsin.

In an effort to move the Evers administration to act, we have launched a petition demanding the governor take immediate action to release vulnerable populations from jails and prisons, an effort which is necessary to save lives. 

Beyond protecting people in jails and prisons, we have also advocated for changes to immigration enforcement, urging county sheriffs to protect public health by refusing to work with ICE and speaking out against those who have. 

We have ramped up our public advocacy efforts in hopes of persuading Governors Evers and the DOC to take immediate action to release vulnerable people from state prisons, as facilities remain ill-suited for social distancing. We've launched a petition, collecting signatures from the people of Wisconsin who demand that the governor follow through on his campaign pledge to reduce the prison population by half.

In June, the ACLU released a report with the Prison Policy Intitative which evaluted all 50 states' response to COVID-19 in jails and prisons. While state leaders have claimed that they have done enough to effectively minimize the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, our report suggests otherwise, giving Wisconsin a failing grade. 

Litigation

On April 10th, we filed a lawsuit in the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking the release of vulnerable people from prisons and jails. We’re asking the court to order Governor Evers and the Department of Corrections to reduce the prison population down to a level where social distancing is possible, giving priority people who face the most risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

To date, Wisconsin has only reduced its prison population by 1.3 percent -- not nearly enough to combat an outbreak of this deadly disease. We will keep you updated on how the case progresses, but we urge you to call Governor Evers and ask him to save lives and stop the spread of the pandemic in prisons and jails.

On April 24th, the state Supreme Court denied our petition, joining Governor Evers and the Department of Corrections in failing to recognize the urgency of getting vulnerable people out of harm's way. But this is not time to give up. The ACLU of Wisconsin has continued to explore every path available to safeguard the health of incarcerated people and avert a public health catastrophe. 

3. Community Outreach

Q.Community Outreach
A.

In addition to pushing leaders in state government to take action, we’ve also done everything in our power to engage the people of Wisconsin in this fight, knowing that people fighting back against injustice are the most powerful agents of change. We have helped to guide young people in this stressful time, holding conversations for high school and college students that address their issues and concerns.

Every week, our Smart Justice team holds virtual town halls, bringing in various advocates and experts to talk about how the community can rally for change and help incarcerated people.
 

More recently, we denounced the rise in racism against Asian-Americans, filed a FOIA request with the DOC, called for a transparent investigation into the death of Joel Acevedo, condemned the president's latest attack on immigrants, sent a letter urging the governor to extend the statewide moratorium on evictions, and demanded equal access to remote learning for all.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the statewide stay-at-home order, the ACLU of Wisconsin was quick to respond. We voiced our opposition to the ruling, expressing particular concern about the disproportionate harm that blocking the safer-at-home order could have on marginalized communities. 

Since then, we have coutinued to sound the alarm about racial disparities related to the pandemic. Our organization has declared racism a public health crisis and spoken out against the toll the pandemic is taking on Wisconsin's Latinx communities, calling out the xenophobic scapegoating seen from some prominent state officials.