Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Inmates Votes Count Too!

While the focus of voter registration efforts in Racine has been on first-time voters, there is also a push by some leaders to get ex-offenders registered. The effort has accelerated in recent weeks because the presidential election is nearing.

A leading advocate for getting ex-offenders, many of whom are black, on the voting rolls is the Racine Branch of the NAACP.

Wisconsin law states that ex-offenders are allowed to vote after they have completed their parole or probationary periods. However during these periods, these citizens are being denied the right to vote even though they may be holding jobs, paying taxes, and attempting to become an active part of society again. The right to vote should not be denied to ex-offenders who are on probation/parole.

As much as 13 percent of 18-year-olds and older are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. When they are eligible, we need to do everything we can to tell them to register to vote. Many ex-convicts believe that because they have been incarcerated for a period of time that they cannot vote. That is simply not true. But the word has to get out to them.

Beverly Hicks, president of the local NAACP, and her team of registers, has focused on getting ex-offenders to vote in Racine County Jail. They were allowed recently to go into the jail and register about 90 inmates. “I was disheartened that we only got about 90 inmates out of over 800 imprisoned in the county,” she explained. The teams were permitted on two occasions to register inmates. Many inmates were surprised that they will be able to vote in this election, explained Hicks. “Our vote does count,” she remembered one hopeful saying.

With the exception of this article, there has not been an effort from any candidate to get the word out to these perspective voters.

Approximately 2.1 million ex-offenders - people who have served their sentences - are denied the right to vote in the United States. According to an ACLU study, 62,324 people with felony convictions in Wisconsin are not allowed to vote; however, 61% of these people are no longer incarcerated.

Some ex-offenders who have child support issues or unpaid parking tickets can vote, as well as someone who is in jail, but has not been charged. However, the message is not reaching this population.

In some cities, organizations plan to hand out voter empowerment cards, which have information on voter registration procedures for ex-offenders.

The voter empowerment cards include a phone number (1-866-496-ACLU) for ex-offenders to call the ACLU office if they encounter a problem with voting.

Ex-offenders have an obligation to exercise their vote because they can influence public policy that way. It is often ex-offenders who are most needy when it comes to job opportunities, interaction with the police and obtaining housing. Voting is a part of the picture when it comes to being a citizen.

I would think that this information would be shared with inmates in the Prisoner Re-Entry Program, which helps ex-offenders work their way back into society.

When I talk to people who have been locked up, I tell them they have to vote. I tell them that people died for them to vote. If we are going to get rid of these disparities in our community, voting is the way to go.

I know the importance of voting. I've been part of two losing elections where the difference came down to one vote in one race, and four votes in another. That really shows the importance of one person's vote.

I think the county can help. They could mail a notice to ex-offenders with an address to tell them to register. Another way could be when someone leaves prison, a voter's registration card should be placed in their packet, depending on where they tell the system they are going to live.

Either way, we cannot allow these people to be disenfranchised. They have paid their debt to society and they deserve the right to vote like everyone else.

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