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Efforts Continue to Expand Voting Access in WI Jails

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021   

MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin is one of many states where proposals have surfaced to restrict voting through new election policies. Voters' rights groups say lawmakers should be going in the opposite direction, by expanding access - including for people in county jails.

Under Wisconsin law, if you've been arrested and are being held before trial, you still are eligible to vote. However, Peter Burress, Wisconsin campaign manager for the group All Voting is Local, said there are barriers, including lack of administrative coordination, the state's Voter ID law, and accessing voter-education materials. He argued that just because a person is behind bars doesn't mean their voice shouldn't be heard.

"Voting is a right," he said. "I put it in the same category as the right to clean water."

Last year, the group issued a report with the ACLU that found more than half of responding county jails had no written policies for helping incarcerated people cast their ballots. Burress said they're following up with outreach and hope to issue more findings this summer. So far, he said, at least 13 facilities have taken steps to improve their policies.

Burress said his group also would like to see state lawmakers take action to protect the voting rights of people in county jails. He said there are a couple of key ways to do that.

"If we expanded the list of acceptable forms of photo IDs for voting, we would have less issues with access to photo-ID-eligible voters in jail," he said. "If we extended the right to vote via an agent, that would also be a huge step."

He pointed to hospitalized individuals, who are able to designate someone to cast a ballot on their behalf. He said he thinks that right should be extended to people who are incarcerated. The group sees jail-based voting barriers as another way of disenfranchising minority voters, with Black residents accounting for nearly 30% of Wisconsin's jail population.

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


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