A new report suggests that only 50 of the approximately 13,000 people in Wisconsin jails cast a ballot in 2020 elections.
All Voting is Local, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin released the Ballots for All: Ensuring Eligible Wisconsinites in Jail Have Equal Access to Voting report on Wednesday. It’s an update to a previous report released last July.
In the last year, many jail administrators have taken small steps to increase ballot access for incarcerated individuals, according to the report, but voting barriers remain for the approximately 13,000 people incarcerated in Wisconsin’s jails at any given time.
The report found that about 70% of the 55 responding counties indicated having formal jail-based voting policies in place in 2021, compared to 47.5% of the 61 counties that responded in 2020. Eighteen counties created or improved their procedures for jail-based voting since 2020.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin said most people incarcerated in the Wisconsin do not become ineligible to vote unless they have been convicted of a felony. The organization estimates at least half of the approximately 13,000 people incarcerated in Wisconsin county jails are eligible to vote.
Eileen Newcomer, voter education manager for the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said it’s difficult to know the exact total number of eligible incarcerated voters because most jails don’t have a structured policy and procedure for determining how many people in their care are eligible to vote.
In any case, jail records indicate only 60 people registered from jail and 50 people voted from jail in the 2020 elections.
“Voting is the most powerful way to have your voice heard,” said David Carlson, smart justice regional organizer at the ACLU of Wisconsin, during a virtual press briefing on Wednesday. “With this de facto disenfranchisement for eligible voters who may be sitting in a jail, we are missing out on a very important resource to addressing the most severe problems that our communities are facing in Wisconsin.”
The report makes a number of recommendations for steps that jails, lawmakers and the Wisconsin Elections Commission could take to make jail-based voting easier.
Jails should build formal jail-based voting policies if they haven’t already, increase access to information about voting, and give inmates opportunities to register to vote and request absentee ballots, among other things.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, could require jails to follow the steps detailed in the report, while also expanding proof-of-identity options and voting infrastructure. The Wisconsin Elections Commission could provide clear guidance on how jail administrators and elections officials can support jail-based voting.
“We do hope that this leads to much-needed conversation and action so that de facto disenfranchisement of eligible voters is not allowed to continue,” Newcomer said.
The three groups are holding a virtual event for the public to discuss the report’s findings on July 13 at noon.