Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Out on the streets and into the voting booth

My column from last Thursday's Waukesha Freeman was on giving the vote to those with felony convictions still under state sanction but no longer behind bars:

Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Jul 9, 2009; Section:Opinion; Page Number:10A

People released from prison should be able to vote

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://wigdersonlibrarypub.blogspot.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

There are very few restrictions on the ability to vote in Wisconsin. You must be a citizen. You must have been a resident of Wisconsin for 10 days. You must not be a felon who is currently on parole, on probation or under extended supervision.

No problem for me. My involvement with state and local law enforcement is limited to explaining to them that having a lead foot is probably covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For approximately 42,000 Wisconsin residents it is a problem, according to the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. They are not in prison. They have been convicted of a felony and have been released from prison back into the community, but remain under the state’s supervision.

Unlike what you might expect, these are not just African-Americans in Milwaukee. The majority of the disenfranchised live outside Milwaukee County, and the majority of the disenfranchised are white.

It is true that the impact falls disproportionately on African-Americans. The ACLU points out that one in nine of African-Americans in this state are disenfranchised. A law that has that much of a disproportionate impact on the voting rights on one segment of a society should be at least questioned.

It is not as if we have a general principle against felons voting. Once someone has been released from the state’s watchful eye, the law allows them to vote.

To further complicate matters, Wisconsin’s neighbors, Illinois and Michigan, already allow their citizens to vote if they have been convicted of a felony but are not in prison, along with 18 other states. There is no hard rule consistently enforced, leading to confusion and potential problems at the polls.

Wisconsin spends a great deal of effort and money to determine who is eligible to vote. Unfortunately, the list-keeping is done by the state’s Government Accountability Board, the successor to the state elections board.

The GAB spent $22.7 million to create a statewide voter database as required by federal law. Attempts to match the list with a list of ineligible voters provided by the state Department of Corrections have not been successful, and the state has resorted to providing paper lists to municipalities at election time. Those paper lists have proven to be inaccurate in some cases.

So we have an inadequate method of controlling who votes in a situation where the rules are inconsistently applied. To what end?

There is certainly the argument of punishment, that felons by the nature of their crimes have rendered themselves unfit to fully participate in society. However, by releasing them from prison our society is already making the statement that these felons should be re-integrated into society, and that there is some social good in doing so.

That re-integration process should include voting. Again, according to the ACLU, felons who vote are half as likely to re-offend as felons who do not vote. We may argue which is the cause and which is the effect, but the relationship is there, and it’s not hard to understand why.

When this country was founded, the right to vote was largely restricted to propertied white males. The argument was that these men had the greatest stake in the country and therefore should have the greatest amount of say at the ballot box.

But voting itself is a claim of a stake in the community. By encouraging those we release from prison to vote, we encourage them to have a stake in their community. This makes it less likely for them to return to the crimes against their community.

A bill will soon be introduced in the Legislature to allow those who have been released into society to regain their right to vote. The bill does not give the vote to those who remain incarcerated, only those that society has seen fit to release. We should encourage those that have been released to take a responsible role in society, and granting them the vote is an important part of that.