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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Will Wisconsin Let Felons Vote?

20 states have more inclusive voting rules

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A bill introduced in the state Legislature would save taxpayers money, streamline Election Day procedures and allow an additional 38,000 people to vote in November. But the bill is stalled in committee by state Rep. Sheryl Albers (R-Reedsburg)— the very person who helped to introduce the same bill in the 2005-’06 legislative session.

The bill would allow those who have been convicted of felonies to vote while they are still on parole or probation but released from incarceration. Currently, those with felony convictions are unable to vote in Wisconsin until they have completed their sentences, including parole or probation.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin estimated that 62,342 convicted felons are barred from voting in the state. About 39% of these residents are incarcerated, but the majority—about 38,000—have been released.

The ACLU found that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the current law. “African Americans comprise 39% of the disenfranchised population, even though they comprise only 5% of the state’s voting age population.” Nationally, about 13% of African-American men are unable to vote due to felony convictions.

Since 1997, 16 states have changed their laws to allow released felons to vote. The ACLU found that Wisconsin has more restrictive felon voting requirements than 20 other states. State Rep. Joe Parisi (D-Madison), who introduced the bill in the Republican-controlled state Assembly—as well as the one that Albers had signed on to in 2005- ’06—said that he supports felon enfranchisement not only because current law unfairly impacts Wisconsin’s minority voters, but because it doesn’t work. According to a Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau report, the policy prevented at least 1,537 people who legally can vote from voting in the November 2006 election. Parisi said that the logistics of comparing the voter list to the felon list—at all levels of government, from the state Department of Corrections to the individual poll worker—isn’t worth the end result, which turns voting into a crime. Parisi said that the state would save at least tens of thousands of dollars by adopting the new standard.

“You have an enormous amount of state resources both in people power and in dollars going to enforce this law that doesn’t work,” Parisi said. He added that those who have served their sentences are less likely to reoffend if they are allowed to vote.

“Our current law does nothing to help encourage a person to become part of society again,” Parisi said. “Our goal should be reintegration, not alienation.” In a closely watched swing state such as Wisconsin, adding a possible 38,000 voters to the rolls appears to be threatening to some politicians. Republicans have supported legislation to make it more difficult to vote.

Proposals to require voter ID and end Election Day registration are both backed by state Republicans seemingly because they would deter new or infrequent voters from casting a ballot. Likewise, support for bills to bring more voters to the polls—such as this one—seems to be divided along party lines. All of the sponsors of this year’s felon enfranchisement bill are Democrats, yet it is being blocked in an Assembly committee, which is controlled by Republicans.

Albers did not return calls seeking comment for this article. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.