By Matt Mencarini
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Within a few years of returning from two traumatic combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Carlson lost his voting rights.
He spent about four years in prison on felony charges that in Wisconsin result in disenfranchisement.
What Carlson didn’t realize is that while he sat in jail prior to his conviction, he could have cast a ballot. Only, he said, no one told him he was still eligible.
While tens of thousands of Wisconsinites are legally barred from voting because of felony convictions, thousands more eligible voters in local jails face persistent barriers to casting a ballot, something advocates for the incarcerated refer to as “de facto disenfranchisement.”
“Disenfranchisement is, in my opinion, a violation of our constitutional liberties, especially individuals who are eligible to vote and the only barrier is the fact that they’re in a jail that doesn’t have a well defined process,” said Carlson, now a community organizer and law student.
The Wisconsin state constitution enshrines voting as a right for all adults with only two exceptions — people deemed incompetent by a court and those serving felony sentences.
At any given time, some 10,000 to 12,000 people are locked up in the state’s county jails, with roughly half in on misdemeanor-related charges and/or awaiting trial, which means thousands likely still have the right to vote. Yet the number of those who actually cast a ballot is miniscule: about 50 in 2020, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
The ACLU’s 2022 report on incarcerated voting, released Monday, found 47 counties with a policy, many from Lexipol, a Texas-based company that creates public safety policy templates that local governments can use and adapt. Sixteen counties lacked any written policy and 15 had something more detailed than the Lexipol policy template.
Some that said they had no policy also said they help people vote and communicate with local clerks. For example, Dane County has no jail voting policy, but the Sheriff’s Office said it has worked with local clerks to create protocols for voting, and a 2021 ACLU report noted that the county has improved access to voting over the years.
Regardless of the presence or quality of a jail’s voting policy, hurdles remain for those incarcerated to obtain and cast a ballot. And a recent Supreme Court ruling banning drop boxes did not address an issue some Republicans raised: Whether state law requires all voters to place their absentee ballots in the mail themselves — which a person behind bars cannot do.
Voting rights for people incarcerated differ from state to state, and some jurisdictions work to ensure those rights can be exercised. In Illinois, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said facilitating voting among people who are incarcerated is important.
“It embeds somebody in their community, their community decisions,” Dart said. “It makes you, the individual, feel as if you’re no different than a person who hasn’t been in a jail in the sense of, ‘I get the same vote they do and mine is equal to theirs.’ ”
Voting help increases in Wisconsin jails
Wisconsin jails operate at the county level, and each sheriff’s department and jail administration determines how the facility runs. An eligible voter in jail could have access to the ballot accommodated or muddied by the jail policy — if there is one.
The number of counties spelling out jail-based voting procedures has increased in recent years, according to the ACLU of Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and All Voting is Local, which all have advocated for improvements.
In 2020, the coalition found that 28 counties had “brief policies with vague language,” 22 of which came from Lexipol. That first year, only Kenosha County could provide a “detailed policy.” The following year they found 22 counties had “created or improved a written policy.”
Milwaukee County, the state’s largest, has a policy that details the process and is also among the few that tracked voter participation in some form. At least 31 people have received an absentee ballot since 2020.
But the wide variety in policies means some eligible voters will never be told they can vote.
“It’s not enough to say that they have this right,” said Sgt. Doug Simpson, who oversees training at the Kenosha County jail. “You have to take the next few steps and say, ‘How are they going to go about doing these things?’ ”
Jail staff must facilitate voting, and Simpson said unless instructions are “spelled out A-B-C-D-E,” staff may not follow through.
In Kenosha, incarcerated people receive information about jail-based voting during intake. Simpson acts as the “designated facility liaison,” answering questions, checking voter registration online, photocopying identification and more.
“It’s an important constitutional issue, and we want to be on the right side of it,” Simpson said. And “from an agency standpoint, from a taxpayer standpoint, I don’t want to be defending lawsuits.”
Groups register the incarcerated
In the opposite corner of the state, several jails have made efforts to more routinely engage incarcerated people about their rights, through periodic postings, informational sessions or registration events.
Engagement is essential because incarceration is traumatic, and “there are bigger things that that person’s worried about than voting,” said Capt. Dave Riewestahl, administrator of the Eau Claire County Jail.
The ACLU’s initial 2020 report prompted Riewestahl to improve his facility’s voting policies. Teaming up with the League of Women Voters and Chippewa Valley Votes, a local voting advocacy group, they developed a multipronged approach.
Eau Claire County Jail now posts its voting guide online. Electronic kiosks in each housing unit allow people to check eligibility and registration and message a social worker with questions.
The jail has even held several voter registration drives, the first in 2021. Riewestahl said registrations aren’t tracked because he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the sheriff’s office to track that information.
Volunteers drive process
Chippewa Valley Votes and the League of Women Voters have been central to organizing voter registration events in his jail.
Karen Voss, co-coordinator of Chippewa Valley Votes, said her group’s efforts have gone beyond Eau Claire County and included recent trips to Dunn County Jail to meet with residents in small groups.
“That has made a much bigger difference than I would have ever expected until it happened,” she said.
Volunteers can forge a “one-to-one connection” through casual, frank conversations, explaining the elected offices with direct impact on incarcerated people, such as sheriff, county board and city council.
One person confided that he assumed voting put him on “some sort of list” that opened him up to other responsibilities, like jury duty. Voss reassured him that was not the case.
Carlson said the general lack of voter education and outreach in jails plays a key role in diminished civic engagement among incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people.
“There’s so many different laws in so many different states on who is eligible, when you’re eligible, if you get a felony conviction, so a lot of people just think that once you have a felony you can never vote again,” Carlson said. “They’re very quick to ensure that you know that your right has been taken. But, there is no transparency on when that right comes back.”
Eligible — but no ID
Like all voters, people who are incarcerated need certain things to register or request an absentee ballot, including an identification card that fits the state’s requirement for voter ID. A jail photograph won’t do.
“The jail knows who it has,” Carlson said. “They have fingerprints, they have all of that. So for there to be this arbitrary rule that, no, it has to be this state-issued ID, it’s stopping a lot of people from being able to engage that are in the jails.”
Both Texas and Wisconsin have voter ID laws, and accept identification specifically for voting.
In Harris County, home to Houston, the jail ensures eligible voters are able to get such ID beforehand, said Maj. Phillip Bosquez. It’s one of the few places in the country where voting is offered at the jail.
Bosquez said the process starts weeks before an election and includes communication with elections officials about who is in the jail, who is registered to vote and who needs a voter ID.
Many steps to in-jail voting
A lot has to go right for someone to vote behind bars in Wisconsin. Even if they happen to get locked up in a facility with a proactive policy and clear procedure, and an acceptable form of photo ID — they still might not be able to cast a ballot.
“The wheels of government move very, very slowly,” said Kenosha’s Simpson.
If a person incarcerated in Kenosha — which has not held voting-related events — begins the process to vote by mail two weeks prior to an election, Simpson said they’re already too late.
He estimated they would need a month to get a copy of proper ID, absentee paperwork and for the staff to review it all, which means for anyone arrested and jailed weeks before an election it’s more difficult — if not impossible — to vote.
Riewestahl, of Eau Claire, said under the current law, it’s possible a person arrested and jailed the Monday before a Tuesday election could not vote.
Then, there’s the reality of jail turnover. Riewestahl said 75% of his population leaves within 10 days.
“So how do you get somebody who’s never registered to vote or never even cared about voting — how do you get them engaged in a jail setting? And then they follow through to get them through the registration part, to get the absentee ballot, to then mail it out?” Riewestahl said. “They’re most likely going to be gone.”
Chicago, Houston lead in access
Jails in Chicago and Houston bring the polls to their incarcerated voters, efforts that came from jail staff working directly with local advocacy groups and election officials.
Chicago Votes, a voting rights advocacy group, encouraged the sheriff to make the jail a temporary early voting location, allowing incarcerated people the chance to vote in person on the two weekends before an election.
During the June primary, voter turnout for the Cook County Jail was higher than the city as a whole, 25% for the jail and 20% for the city, Block Club Chicago reported in July.
“The more opportunities that people have to vote the better,” said Alex Boutros, community organizing manager for Chicago Votes.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.