Friday, January 15, 2010

Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote? Yes Says Conservative Waukesha Blogger

Reposted from the Wigderson Library & Pub blog and published on January 14, 2010 in the Waukesha Freeman opinion page. Wigderson has been maintaining his conservative blog on local and state politics since 2004 and has been a guest commentator on greater Milwaukee radio and television shows.

Should felons be allowed to vote?
We’re in another election cycle, and I’m in training. I am asking everyone I know about the candidates, talking to the professionals, reading the Web sites, and getting antsy waiting for the first campaign finance reports. It is a fun time to be a political writer.

Unfortunately, for far too many of us, elections are just another day on the calendar. Worse, they are just days that remind them that while society pretends these people should be among us, they are really secondclass citizens.

Over 42,000 Wisconsinites will not be allowed to vote this spring. They are not illegal aliens. They are not underage. They are not in prison.

They are people who were convicted of felonies, but are now free. If, as a condition of their release, they remain under the state’s supervision, such as probation or parole, they are not eligible to vote. They are free in most respects, but not in the most fundamental way.

In the state Legislature right now is a bill that would grant these freed felons the right to vote in Wisconsin, the same right in at least 18 other states. Supporters of the bill are trying to round up the necessary votes to win.

It should not be that difficult. After all, the Democrats are in control of both legislative chambers. But there are some Democrats who fear what their Republican opponents will do with this issue in October and November.

Some Republican legislators, too, are willing to give the idea a chance. But they have legitimate concerns about whether it is proper to allow felons to vote, even if they are not in state custody.

From a practical point of view, we need to ask ourselves if it’s really worth it to prosecute someone for doing what we tell the rest of our citizens is the responsible thing to do.

The state of Wisconsin spent $22 million on a voter database. Trying to match the list to the list of released felons ineligible to vote proved nearly impossible, with election officials resorting to unreliable paper lists to try to keep felons from voting.

If someone is actually caught, the case is then referred to the district attorney for prosecution. At a time when the state is cutting back on staff in district attorney offices, do we really want them to put this as a priority? Or would we rather have them spend more time prosecuting real criminals?

Yes, I can hear the critics already. “But it’s vote fraud. Of course the DAs should make it a priority.”

Is it really vote fraud? Fraud would imply an attempt to deceive for personal gain. Our situation, that of a felon trying to be a responsible member of society by casting a ballot, to gain a stake in the direction of our society, is hardly fraud.

Fraud would be the alleged stuffing of the voter rolls by groups like ACORN. Fraud would be the cases where someone might vote two or three times. These are actions that diminish the legitimate votes and harm democracy.

Asking a felon to vote does not diminish legitimate votes. Asking someone who is no longer incarcerated by the state to vote does not harm democracy. Asking a felon to vote only makes that person a better, more responsible citizen.

We know that in those states where we can measure the progress of felons that do vote they are half as likely to re-offend. We can argue the cause and effect, but there is a relationship, and we would be fools not to recognize it and take advantage.

Democrats in the legislature are debating whether they have the votes to pass the voting rights bill. Admittedly, the timing is terrible, as the first prisoners are coming out now under the early release program. Nobody wants to be seen as soft on crime.

However, it appears that they are close to having enough support to put the bill on the legislative agenda. If that happens, Wisconsin Republicans should remember 14 Republican governors have already allowed this change in their states. Republicans can support the change in the law here, too.

James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Felon Disfranchisement is Voting Rights Violation - Appeals Court Says Justice System "Infected" With Racism

There is news in the area of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. On January 5th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that felon disfranchisement is a direct violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, overturned previous court decisions on barring ex-felons from voting as judges said that the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the State of Washington were a significant, institutional barrier to the right to vote for people of color.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case because in the state of Washington, as well as in Wisconsin and around the country, taking away a citizen’s right to vote based on a past conviction has a racially discriminatory effect in a system that locks up a disproportionate number of minorities.

The court found among many other things that the state of Washington's criminal justice system was "infected" with racial discrimination. That’s a strong statement. The numbers of disproportionate minority incarceration don’t lie: In Washington, three percent of the population is African American, but 29% of their offenders are black. In Wisconsin, around five percent of our population is African American while 39% of our offenders are black.

Worst case scenarios are in Kentucky and Virginia where people never get their right to vote back, even after finishing their parole and probation. The ACLU of Virginia was among the organizations that demonstrated this week and called for an executive order to end the discriminatory policy.

The reasons for disproportionate minority incarceration are complicated, but denying ex-felons the right to vote is un-American and anti-democratic. Plain and simple. You can read the court’s opinion and you can find the ACLU amicus brief online. The ruling got some coverage in the Seattle Times and in the Seattle PI.

Our Wisconsin state legislature will start its January session on the 19th and it is a good time to remind them about how important this issue is for voting rights in our state. Call your state legislator today and remind them why the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act needs to be passed immediately. If you would like to volunteer for this issue, contact the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Cross-posted with the ACLU of Wisconsin's Cap City Liberty blog