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Punishment after prison: A closer look at felon voting rights in Wisconsin

An empty voting chair. (WWMT/Sarah White)
An empty voting chair. (WWMT/Sarah White)
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(WLUK) -- In Wisconsin, people with felony convictions cannot vote until they complete supervision.

Most of the U.S. has similar laws.

Some states allow people to vote as soon as they are out of prison, but still on parole.

And only felons in Vermont and Maine never lose their right to vote.

Nearly 46,000 people in Wisconsin were no longer in prison as of April 2020, according to the state's Department of Corrections. But they still can't vote because they're under supervision.

"Wisconsin allows folks with felony convictions to vote after they have fully completed their sentence. So after they are off probation, parole, or extended supervision," Molly Collins with ACLU of Wisconsin said.

That can’t come soon enough for Demetrius Reed.

"I don’t feel like a member of society no more," Reed told FOX 11.

Reed is a convicted felon. He served three years in prison for marijuana possession.

"When I got out, I did a whole 360. I changed my life. I started boxing, I stopped partying. I stopped doing a lot of stuff. So it’s like.. I should be treated fairly now," Reed said.

Reed is one of many people making their voices heard, at protests and city council meetings.

But he can’t use his voice at the polls.

"It makes me feel I’m not part of this country. Because I can’t vote for who runs where I still live, where I’m still a citizen. I don’t feel like I’m participating in making it a better place for the next generation and stuff like that because I can’t vote," Reed said.

"Wisconsin has one of the highest incarceration rates of black people, black men specifically, in the country," Collins said.

A Columbia University study found that by the end of 2017, 1 in 8 Black men in Wisconsin were under supervision. That’s more than five times the rate for White men.

Ravel Wright has no convictions, but says he’s seen loved ones lose their right to vote.

"It makes me feel like they are still keeping us as mental slaves. If you keep black people from voting, you keep black people from being part of the community, that means you’re taking their voice away from them. You’re stripping them from their rights, really. Because once you go to jail you are a legal slave," Wright said.

"Is taking away someone’s right to vote an effective punishment?" FOX 11 asked the ACLU of Wisconsin.

"No. I think that we want folks who have made mistakes in their lives to be able to stay connected to their communities and to be rehabilitated," Collins said.

Colorado had similar voting laws to Wisconsin up until last year.

A bill sponsored by Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod restored voting rights to felons on supervision.

"Immediately more than 10,000 Coloradans became immediately eligible to vote," Herod said.

Herod is a Democrat. She says there wasn't much opposition from Colorado Republicans over the bill.

"Folks don’t go into prison as Democrats or Republicans. Or commit crimes as Democrats or Republicans," Herod said.

So could voting rights for felons be restored in Wisconsin?

State Democrats introduced a bill last year, but it never became law.

Assemblyman Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, says he doesn’t see a need to loosen voting laws.

"Forty-eight states have some restriction on it. Some of the states are a little less restrictive than Wisconsin. Some states a little more. I think we’re in a good spot, and I’m satisfied with it," Murphy said.

Murphy says losing the right to vote is a fair punishment for convicted felons.

"It’s part of the punishment here sort of in a way. That these are certain rights you give up until you are completely out of the system. Because of that I just don’t particularly find any reason why we need to change that," Murphy said.

FOX 11 asked Wright what changes he'd like to see happen in Wisconsin.

"I’m not telling them to give every felon that, that’s not possible because a lot of people don’t change even though you sit there to change. They should have psychologists run a program where they're out here talking to felons to see if they actually changed to give them their rights back," Wright said.

Reed plans to keep advocating for his rights.

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"I don’t feel like we should give up the fight. Why give up?" Reed said.

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