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Voting in jails: How Wis. jails are facilitating inmates’ right to vote

Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 7:01 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - In Wisconsin, many incarcerated people still have the right to vote. In fact, the Marathon County Jail administrator said she is anecdotally noticing more inmates partake than in past elections. This is happening as jury trials are postponed due to the health risks of the pandemic, meaning more people are in jail waiting to see if they will be found innocent or convicted of a crime.

People who are incarcerated are eligible to vote if they are not currently serving any part of a felony sentence and meet the other requirements people who are not incarcerated need in order to vote. This includes people who have been convicted of a felony in the past but are finished serving their entire sentence, including things like probation or supervision. However, as Ryeshia Farmer, the Rights For All campaign coordinator for the Wisconsin ACLU notes, this is not necessarily common knowledge to voters, especially incarcerated voters.

“I hear stories from them all the time about like, you know, ‘when I was incarcerated in jail, I didn’t know that I could vote’ or ‘no one really told me after I got off paper, like, what that process was like,’” she said.

Those comments from inmates around the state she noted are why it is important that jails have policies around elections. She led a research project looking into how jails in Wisconsin handle their legal duties to facilitate eligible inmates' right to vote.

They made records requests out to all 72 counties in Wisconsin in February looking for their policies, procedures, whether they had outdated information, deadline complications, and a history of supporting jail voting. Of those counties, nearly 85% or 61 counties responded; Bayfield, Burnett, Calumet, Juneau, Lincoln, Menominee, Oconto, Polk, Richland, Shawano, Winnebago did not respond.

A little more than half of the counties that responded (32) do not have any written policy about how inmates can register and vote, including Oneida County. NewsChannel 7 reached out to Oneida County, but did not hear back. Just less than half (28 counties) the report notes “had brief policies with vague language.” Kenosha is the only county listed as having a detailed policy.

Update 10/27/2020: Oneida County Sheriff Grady Hartman called Oct. 27 explaining while they do not have a written policy, they do have a procedure, though that is not in writing either. He explained over the last three years inmate voting goes through him and he collaborates with the League of Women voters to identify which inmates are eligible, notify them that they are eligible, and helps to facilitate gathering the necessary documents for those who want to vote. He said he was going through the list of inmates every other week as some inmate’s situations are difficult to determine whether they are eligible, for example, if a felony was pleaded down to a misdemeanor, they may still have a felony case number but would be eligible to vote. He said in the three years since he has started this program, only a couple of inmates were interested in casting a ballot. He is unsure of what the procedure or process was before that time.

As for the procedures, five counties, including Marathon and Portage, are noted as having detailed ones to facilitate registration and voting from jail. Another 10 counties relied on guidance from the Government Accountability Board, which was disbanded in 2016. The Wisconsin Elections Commission took the board’s place, but it was not reflected in the records. Five counties, including Forest, were noted to have procedures that could help people vote after the absentee ballot request deadline passed, but the report added that these were brief and vague. “No jails indicated they had a system in place to track registration and/or voting requests by individuals in their care,” the report stated.

“Not to say that anyone is necessarily doing it on purpose, but like if folks don’t know that they can cast their ballot, if they don’t know how, if they don’t know who to talk to, then that is directly is contributing to defacto disenfranchisement," Farmer said. "Which means some people don’t cast their ballot because they just don’t have access to do so.”

Of course, people in jail or who are on house arrest and on electronic monitor have restrictions. Many cannot leave or have to request permission to leave. They also do not have access to computers or the internet in the same way or the necessary materials to vote.

“To be able to vote in Wisconsin you need an ID and not everybody who is incarcerated is incarcerated with their ID," Farmer said. "And so like, what access are you giving them to reach out families to acquire that ID if they want to vote?”

For Marathon County, a social worker is the designated person to facilitate voting in the jail. She posts a notice listing the eligibility criteria and states interested voters should contact her for more information. She then helps inmates get access to the materials needed to register, request, and cast an absentee ballot.

Knowing deadlines is important. At this point, the deadline has passed for people to register to vote online or through the mail, which means people have to register in-person, which largely is not an option for inmates. Those who are already registered still have time to request a ballot, receive it, vote, and return it through the mail.

Farmer also noted giving inmates access to information about the candidates and issues on their ballots is also important so they can make informed votes.

These are points and suggestions noted in the report, which also includes a suggestion of creating a polling place within jails on Election Day so people jailed after absentee deadlines have passed can still cast ballots if they are eligible and have the necessary materials, much like what is done in nursing homes with special voting deputies. It also suggests extending the right to have people vote via an agent, like what is allowed for hospitalized Wisconsinites.

Farmer said there were several counties that were grateful for the report and are interested in looking at making changes, with few counties being completely dismissive.

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