Two bills introduced by three state legislators Wednesday aim to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated Wisconsinites and end “prison gerrymandering.” Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) Rep. Jodi Emerson, (D-Eau Claire) and Rep. David Crowley (D-Milwaukee), joined activists for ex-prisoners’ rights to announce their “Unlock The Vote” campaign.
“Our democracy is based on the fundamental principle that everyone has a voice,” Rep. Emerson told Wisconsin Examiner. “Those who’ve paid their debt to society should have a voice.”
Sylvester Jackson, who spoke at a press conference in the Capitol, spent ten years of his life behind bars. “When you commit a crime, you’re punished by being sent to prison,” the 53-year-old activist with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) explained to Wisconsin Examiner. But formerly incarcerated people should not be stripped of their basic rights as citizens, he said. “I work every day, I pay taxes. And yet, I don’t have a say-so on who represents me,” Jackson said.
A second bill introduced by the same group of legislators would change how the state draws voting districts by requiring those which contain prisons to stop counting the incarcerated population for purposes of determining representation in the state legislature. It would require that prisoners be counted as residents of their home districts rather than where they are currently serving their sentence.
“Those are individuals who are counted for the purposes of representation, but never get to talk to their representatives,” Sen. Taylor said at a press conference in the Capitol announcing the introduction of the bills.
Many of the state’s prisons are located in distant rural communities. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have been allocated in the communities in Milwaukee are being distributed in Jackson, Columbia, places where there’s a prison population,” says Jackson.
Wisconsin is a logical place to test inmate rights reforms. The Badger State has led the nation in both African and Native American incarceration over the last decade. Milwaukee’s 53206 area zip code is also known to incarcerate the highest rate of black men in the entire country. Sen. Taylor notes that denying people targeted by these systems a voice also means throwing away valuable resources. “Those communities get funding”–as well as extra representation– based on a disenfranchised prison population, she told the Examiner.
Taylor said she hopes that the bills introduced Wednesday will grant incarcerated Americans “a level of fairness that they deserve.”
The “Unlock The Vote” bill would affect about 65,000 Wisconsin residents who are currently on probation or parole by restoring their voting rights–more than the population of any of Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly districts.
“So many people who have a felony conviction think that they can never vote again,” said Sarah Ferber, associate director of Ex-incacerated People Organizing (EXPO). “It’s not true.” Ferber said she is excited to be taking part in a tour of five Wisconsin cities to publicize “unlock the vote” to “get the word out” to people who have served their time that they can vote. Events are planned in Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Racine and Milwaukee.