Wisconsin is one of 30 states that disenfranchises people convicted of felonies who are out of prison but still on supervision.
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By any measure, Carl Fields makes his community better. He is a local organizer in Racine and Kenosha counties, a program director for the Racine Hospitality Center, a local day shelter, and he has been the subject of fawning news coverage as he fights to reform the criminal justice system.
But at the end of the day, he has no electoral say in his community, state, or nation.
Fields is one of about 50,000 Wisconsinites living in the real world, paying taxes, working a job—maybe even owning a house—who cannot use their constitutional right to vote. That’s because Wisconsin, like 30 other states, strips people of their right to vote when they are convicted of felonies and doesn’t return that right until they are released from community supervision. This can sometimes be a decade or more after their release from prison.
For Fields, that means he cannot vote again until he is more than 50 years old. He first went to prison in 2000 at age 21 on three counts of recklessly endangering safety with a dangerous weapon. He was released in 2016 but will be on extended supervision until 2033, meaning he won’t be able to cast a ballot until the 2034 midterm elections.
“I’ve been kept from voting for a generation in the sentence that I received, and I’m being kept out of the voting process for another generation,” said Fields, the Racine-Kenosha organizer for the organization Ex-incarcerated People Organizing, or EXPO. “So, in those two generations of me being out of the process of voting, a whole lot of potential gains are lost.”
A 2019 study by the Columbia University Justice Lab delivered a scatching indictment of Wisconsin’s community supervision program. Not only does Wisconsin have incredibly strict requirements for people under supervision, but those rules are also “extensive, often unclear, and can be arbitrarily enforced,” the study found.
Violation of those rules can result in reincarceration, putting stress on Wisconsin’s already bloated prison system, leaving people disenfranchised for years longer than their original sentence. Reincarceration is so common in Wisconsin that the state has a prison dedicated to locking up people who violate their supervision terms. The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility was built in 2001 just for that purpose, and 78 percent of the inmates there were imprisoned due to supervision revocation at the time of the Justice Lab study.
About 66,000 people are on extended supervision in Wisconsin. About 50,000 of those supervision sentences are from felony convictions, while the other 16,000 are from misdemeanor convictions, which do not cause disenfranchisement.
The right to vote is a powerful incentive on its own to reduce recidivism, said study co-author Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former New York City probation commissioner. A 2012 study published in the Berkeley Law Journal found people are more likely to become re-incarcerated when voting rights are not restored.
“What we want people under supervision to do is civically engage, and the more civically engaged they are, the more likely they are to behave like good citizens,” Schiraldi said. “A major part of civic engagement is voting.”
In Wisconsin, the state that incarcerates Black men at the highest rate in the nation, disenfranchisement affects the Black community disproportionately. One in eight Black men in Wisconsin were on supervision at the time of the Columbia study.
“There’s nothing that should be preventing them from participating in the civic process other than laws that—I’m just gonna call it what it is—historically, these are racist laws that have been put in place,” said Sean Wilson, Smart Justice program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. “And they need to be done away with.”
That result is not unintentional, Schiraldi said. Many states’ felony disenfranchisement laws date back to the Reconstruction Era as a “very specific effort” to suppress the Black vote, he said.
Like Fields, Wilson cannot vote. Wilson was convicted of armed robbery in 2000 at age 17. He has been out of prison for three-and-a-half years, owns a house and a business, and serves on Gov. Tony Evers’ Juvenile Justice Commission. But it will be another decade before Wilson is released from supervision and allowed to vote. He’ll be almost 50 by then.
“Not being able to participate in casting a ballot for someone who is going to determine how much I pay in taxes, whether it be in business or my home, it weighs on me,” Wilson said. “I will not deny that it weighs on me, that it does not make me feel a certain way. I would love to participate in the voting process.”
State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) introduced legislation last year that would “Unlock the Vote” and restore voting rights to people on community supervision. Although groups such as EXPO and the ACLU endorsed the bill, it has gone nowhere, with Republican leadership ignoring it in the Senate and Assembly.
Evers’ office did not respond to whether the governor would support legislation to give voting rights back to people when they leave prison.
Earlier this month, North Carolina became the latest state to restore voting rights to some people convicted of felonies. A panel of judges struck down disenfranchisement laws there, calling them unconstitutional.
“The natural state of Americans should be the damn ability to vote,” Schiraldi said. “And unless there’s a powerful reason, powerful data, powerful research saying why allowing people on probation or parole to vote is harmful—unless there’s really a mountain of research on that—they should [be able to] vote. And as far as I know, there’s no evidence.”