People in the Eau Claire County Jail can use kiosks to get information about voting eligibility and contact jail staff about requesting an absentee ballot. (Ariana Lindquist for Wisconsin Watch)
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As part of its “Democracy on the Ballot” series, Wisconsin Watch is highlighting barriers to voting as part of its commitment to strengthening democracy through stories about policies and laws that keep people from participating in our system of self-governance.

Among those who face barriers to voting are people who are incarcerated.

In Wisconsin, people convicted of a felony cannot vote until all aspects of their sentences are completed. The voting ban begins with their conviction. It continues through any time spent in the Wisconsin state prison system. And it doesn’t end until their full terms of parole, probation or extended supervision are completed.

But this prohibition does not apply to thousands of people in Wisconsin’s county jails, Wisconsin Watch found. 

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At Wisconsin Watch, we are committed to preserving democracy by combating mis- and disinformation, critically reporting on the politically powerful and examining how state laws and policies affect the daily lives of Wisconsinites. Only by providing accurate, timely and fact-based information can we defend the democratic institutions that guarantee our freedoms and civil liberties.

Many of those individuals are behind bars because they are awaiting trial on felony charges — meaning they are not yet and may never be convicted. Or they are serving a sentence of less than one year in the local jail on a misdemeanor conviction. Again, those people may not have been convicted of a felony and would retain full voting rights.

Although many people in jail are eligible to vote, the fact that they are incarcerated means their constitutional right to cast a ballot may be seriously constrained. They can’t stroll outside to mail their absentee ballot. They can’t drop it off at the local clerk’s office. They can’t go to the polls on Election Day.

And in some jails, which are run by county sheriff’s offices, there are no mechanisms to help them vote.

We sent inquiries to sheriff’s departments that run Wisconsin’s county jails, asking for any policies around voting while incarcerated. We found that just over half of them have a policy to assist people in voting. 

We also delayed publication for several weeks in anticipation of the latest report by the ACLU of Wisconsin that covered similar ground to make sure we had the most complete and up-to-date information.

In our search for solutions, Wisconsin Watch found examples in Wisconsin, Chicago and Houston in which local sheriffs are working hard to ensure residents of their jails can vote. 

And we discovered ways in which policy and law changes can help make that happen for people in Wisconsin who are incarcerated. 

For example, changes to Wisconsin’s voter ID law could allow jailers to provide the identification people held in their facilities need to allow them to meet the requirements to vote. Another option is extending to jail inmates a state law that allows people who are hospitalized before or on Election Day to enlist someone to retrieve and deliver their absentee ballots.

Just as people who are incarcerated have the constitutional right to avoid cruel or unusual punishment, thousands of them also retain the constitutional right to vote. Wisconsin Watch is dedicated to exploring whether the rights of all eligible voters are protected.

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Dee J. Hall, a co-founder of Wisconsin Watch, joined the staff as managing editor in June 2015. She is responsible for daily news operations. She worked at the Wisconsin State Journal for 24 years as an editor and reporter focusing on projects and investigations.

A 1982 graduate of Indiana University’s journalism school, Hall served reporting internships at the weekly Lake County Star in Crown Point, Ind., The Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune, The Louisville (Ky.) Times and The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Prior to returning to her hometown of Madison in 1990, she was a reporter for eight years at The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix, where she covered city government, schools and the environment. During her 35-year journalism career, Hall has won more than three dozen local, state and national awards for her work, including the 2001 State Journal investigation that uncovered a $4 million-a-year secret campaign machine operated by Wisconsin’s top legislative leaders.