The state of Wisconsin has become ground zero for voter disenfranchisement in the United States. The last decade has seen the integrity of our democracy and elections tarnished by onerous voter ID laws, intense partisan gerrymandering, and an agenda deliberately designed to make voting more difficult and less accessible — one that specifically targets marginalized communities.
While the steady erosion of Wisconsinites’ voting rights has served as a cautionary tale for the rest of the country, the disenfranchisement that occurs in our jails is often left out of the conversation.
The voices of individuals in jail matter — and most of them still have every right to cast a ballot and participate in elections. In Wisconsin, voting eligibility is only revoked after the conviction of a felony or in cases of treason and bribery. The majority of the 12,500 people locked up in county jails have not been convicted of a crime, and remain there simply because they cannot afford to post bail. And, because people of color comprise a disproportionate percentage of the jail population, obstacles to voting end up hurting those communities more.
Although most people in jail can still vote under the law, many cannot do so in practice. A new report issued by the ACLU of Wisconsin and All Voting is Local makes clear that county jails are failing to accommodate eligible voters in custody, as the facilities lack the proper infrastructure, policies and protocol needed to make voting possible.
The report underscores these administrative deficiencies and identifies missing institutional policy and structure. Of the 61 counties that responded to open records requests we filed, more than half said they had no written policies that address how voting should take place in jails, and nearly 46% had policies that were too ambiguous to be meaningful. Our analysis determined that only 8.2% had detailed policies in place. Without clear standards and procedures, or the proper mechanisms to promote legal compliance, it is no wonder why so many eligible voters are blocked from the ballot box while in jail.
To allow jailed citizens the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right, counties must construct functional systems to facilitate voting, formalized in concrete policy guidelines that make it possible for people to understand how to vote and what is on their ballot. A major challenge to jail voting is centered around the difficulty to get accurate information while incarcerated. Many potential voters are unsure of their eligibility and have limited means of learning when elections are held, what deadlines need to be met, and who candidates on the ballot are. Jail administrators should take proactive measures to provide eligible voters with what they need to cast their vote and make an informed decision.
To improve access, our report encourages sheriffs to make an effort to expand voter registration, vote by mail, and in-person voting opportunities. This means developing standardardized processes that allow everyone to check their registration status, register to vote, request and return absentee ballots, and vote. We encourage counties to start collecting election data and verifying that ballots are actually counted.
Disenfranchising voters who are enmeshed in the criminal legal system also inhibits their ability to reconnect and be part of their communities. For people in jails, voting serves not only as a method of engaging in democracy, but also as a vehicle for reclaiming a sense of community. It provides people with a rare opportunity to still feel a part of the places they call home.
The inadequate infrastructure counties have for jail voting is not only unfair to the large swath of eligible Wisconsin voters who are needlessly disenfranchised, but also stands in direct contradiction with the democratic values this country purports to hold sacred. We should aspire to build a democracy in which everyone is able to participate, and we will only get there if all of us, including voters in jail, have equal access to the ballot.