Republican and Democratic politicians across the country are deeply divided over restoring the right to vote to felons, a political fracture that affects millions of convicted criminals. In Iowa and Kentucky, Democratic governors issued executive orders to restore voting rights to many felons — only to have them rescinded by Republican governors who succeeded them. Democratic legislators in 29 states proposed more than 270 bills over the past six years that would have made it easier for some felons to vote but very few passed, especially in legislatures controlled by Republicans, News21 found in an analysis of state legislative measures nationwide. Debate and decisions about restoring voting rights to felons often follow partisan lines because felons, particularly African-Americans, are viewed as more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, voting rights experts told News21. Nationwide, 1 in 13 black voters is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction as opposed to 1 in 56 non-black voters, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on criminal justice sentencing policies and racial disparities.
In Wisconsin, the disenfranchisement of both black and white voters is even more stark. Statewide, about 1 in every 9 African-American adults is barred from voting because of a felony conviction. That compares to 1 out of every 50 residents in Wisconsin overall, the American Civil Liberties Union has estimated.
Wisconsin prohibits voting by felons until they are no longer under the control of the state, including parole, probation or extended supervision. People who are charged but not convicted of a crime, even if they are in jail, are allowed to vote, under state law. The League of Women Voters of Dane County recently prepared information packets including an absentee ballot and registration cards for the 900 inmates at the Dane County Jail, volunteer Marian Matthews said.
Former prison inmate Joseph Frey, 57, who served a 22-year sentence for crimes including eight years on a rape in Oshkosh for which he was wrongfully convicted, said it was “life-changing” when he could begin voting again in 2013. As a person whose voting rights were stripped from him, Frey is frustrated that many people do not even bother to go to the polls. “We have to make sure that these politicians are accountable to us — they work for us,” said Frey, who now lives in Madison. “If we don’t stand up for ourselves, then shame on us.”