Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Should felons be allowed to vote?

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Publication: Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:2010 Jan 14; Section:Opinion; Page Number: 8A

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.)

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