11% of African American voters in Wisconsin are prohibited from exercising their franchise. Not because of their immigration status or their citizenship status but because they’re in prison, on parole or on probation. That’s wrong.
Across the nation, 5 million people, mostly minorities, predominantly African Americans, are disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction. 4 million of these are not actually incarcerated but are out in the community, on probation or parole and are still prevented from participating in the most sacred of civic duties. Even when they come off parole or probation and, their participation rate is low.
Wisconsin is about average in their treatment of felons. Prisoners cannot vote while incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Once a felon has completed his sentence, his right to vote is restored. Some states like Kentucky and Virginia (click to view what Virginia requires for re-enfranchisement) permanently disenfranchise people and require a special petition to restore voting rights. On the other side of the spectrum, Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated, on probation or parole.
In Wisconsin, that 11% of African American voters translates into 24,293 voters. Since African Americans are 10x more likely to be “in the system” than other racial or ethnic groups, they represent a significant disenfranchisement risk. Combine that with the recent “Voter ID” bill, Wisconsin faces a significant and ongoing attack on the right of African Americans to vote.
The history of criminal disenfranchisement reaches back, as so many racist laws do, to the Reconstruction. Disenfranchisement followed in the wake of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution (Abolition of Slavery, Extension of Citizenship to Former Slaves, and The Right to Vote respectively) and the national weariness of the efforts at Reconstruction. The laws were used, along with literacy laws, poll taxes, (and now Voter ID laws) to throw up barriers to African Americans and their right to vote. Between 1865 and 1900, 27 states enacted laws that disenfranchised people convicted of felonies.
In 1901, then Virginia State Senator Carter Glass observed that the proposed suffrage bill that included criminal disenfranchisement would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.” Modern racists don’t use such crude term, they use terms like “voter fraud.” Nixon’s Southern Strategy endures. As Lee Atwater reflected,
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”.
This was and is the heart of the disenfranchisement of criminals and of all modern Voter ID laws, ours included.
Wisconsin, shouldn’t we be better than this?