MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — This year, on Nov. 3, Christal Arroyo will cast her first ballot in nearly two decades.
Arroyo has spent the past 19 years incarcerated or, more recently, under extended supervision. Since she finished out her sentence in August, though, she’s regained her right to vote. And now, she plans to head to the polls on Election Day — while Americans are voting by mail in record numbers this year, she wants the “full experience” this time around.
“It’s going to be extremely liberating to me,” Arroyo says. “This election is important. So I’m very humbled that I’m able to be a part of it.”
Even before she could cast a ballot, though, Arroyo has been involved with efforts to get out the vote. She’s an organizer with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), a statewide group pushing for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin.
Part of their work includes making sure everyone who can vote has the chance to do so — as well as giving more current and former inmates ways to make their voices heard in the election.
Unlocking the vote
Voting rules for people convicted of felonies or misdemeanors vary widely among different states, overall preventing around 6.1 million Americans from voting, according to the Sentencing Project. In Wisconsin, anyone convicted of a felony is barred from voting until they complete their sentence and are “off paper” — meaning they’re done with any parole, probation, or supervision time as well.
Arroyo has actually been out of prison for the past 10 years, but her extended supervision meant she couldn’t vote until this year. She and other EXPO activists are pushing for the state to restore voting rights as soon as people are released from prison. Across the U.S., 17 states automatically restore voting rights after release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while two states and the District of Columbia allow voting even for those currently in prison.
“I believe everyone has a right to be heard,” Arroyo says. “Everyone that is paying taxes, and living a productive life as a positive member of society, and has completed a sentence, should have a right to representation.”
Nearly 64,000 Wisconsinites were on parole or probation as of July 31, the most recent available data, according to the Department of Corrections. And these effects aren’t distributed equally: The ACLU of Wisconsin estimates that one of every nine African-American voters in Wisconsin is disenfranchised, compared to one in 50 voters overall.
Restoring rights to more formerly incarcerated residents could have a major impact, especially in a swing state like Wisconsin, says Peggy West-Schroder, statewide campaign coordinator for EXPO. Back in 2016, now-President Donald Trump flipped the state with just 27,000 votes.
“We literally could be changing the face of politics in Wisconsin if we use that voice,” West-Schroder says.
EXPO, in partnership with other organizations and lawmakers across the state, launched an “Unlock the Vote” campaign last year pushing to expand voting rights for ex-offenders.
Democratic lawmakers — including State Sen. Lena Taylor and State Rep. Jodi Emerson, who have been working with EXPO organizers — introduced a bill last September that would address these requests, but it failed to pass through the state legislature.
Despite some pushback, Arroyo says she’s mostly seen a lot of support in her canvassing work for Unlock the Vote, with many people open to allowing these “second chances.”
West-Schroder says she thinks some hesitance to change the current rules stems from the idea that formerly incarcerated people will all vote progressively, but that she knows “that’s not 100% of them.” She says these voters would actually have a useful perspective because of their firsthand experience with the state’s criminal justice system.
“People that are formerly incarcerated, coming right out of prison, you are uniquely qualified to vote in that you’ve actually had face time with the district attorney; you’ve been in a county jail, which is run normally by the sheriff; you've had experience of living in a state facility, which is run by the state legislature and the governor,” West-Schroder says. “So you actually know what these people do firsthand.”
Ballots behind bars
In addition to expanding the pool of potential voters, EXPO members are working to make sure that ballots are getting to everyone who’s eligible.
Even after finishing out their sentences, Arroyo and West-Schroder say they’ve encountered plenty of formerly incarcerated people who simply don’t know they can vote again.
“We still run into people today — a lot of people actually, unfortunately — who believe that in the state of Wisconsin, once you're convicted of a felony, you never regain your right to vote,” West-Schroder says.
She says they’re pushing for legislation to make sure people learn about their restored voting rights as part of the official exit process for parole or supervision. Before the pandemic, she and her team would spend time just waiting outside of probation or parole offices to make sure everyone leaving knew their rights, sometimes finding people were “stunned” to learn they can vote again.
Plus, even some people in Wisconsin’s jails and prisons have the right to cast ballots from behind bars if they’re serving a sentence for a misdemeanor (not a felony) or are still awaiting trial.
Typically, there are about 12,500 Wisconsinites in county jails on any given day, according to the ACLU of Wisconsin — although many have made efforts to reduce their populations during the pandemic.
As part of its election efforts, EXPO has been working on a “Vote By Mail From Jail” program to send absentee voter applications and ballots to eligible Wisconsinites in jails, West-Schroder says. They’ve pored over county dockets for any eligible voters they can reach out to, as well as putting out calls to community members whose loved ones might want help voting absentee from these facilities.
In a report over the summer, the ACLU looked at the voting policies of 61 Wisconsin counties and found that more than half of them didn’t have written procedures in place to allow people to vote from jail. Only one of them — Kenosha County — had a policy the authors characterize as “detailed,” while the rest were “brief policies with vague language.”
“Our democracy works best when everyone participates,” the authors write. “Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, it is critical that all eligible voters have a say in who represents our interests.”
“My voice is not silent”
Growing up in Milwaukee, Ramiah Whiteside says he didn’t talk about politics much. He says people in his community were first and foremost worried about surviving — not about elections and ballots.
It was during his 25 years in prison that Whiteside really started digging into politics, in an environment where “we watched all the news, all the time.”
“I didn't really realize the significance of voting and politics until I was an adult, and I no longer could vote legally because I had a felony,” he says. “So when I could really kind of feel that desire for it, I was already excluded.”
Whiteside was released about a year ago, but still can’t vote because he remains on parole. Instead, he’s found a different way to engage with the 2020 election: Through EXPO’s relational voter program, which mobilizes incarcerated people to talk to their friends and family about voting.
Through the program, inmates reach out to people in their lives — mothers, uncles, neighbors, significant others — about voting, and send over lists of those contacts to EXPO, receiving a reimbursement fee in return. Whiteside has been helping coordinate the program since January and says it was a “no-brainer” for him to get involved, especially since he’d already kept in touch with people he’d met while serving out his sentence.
They’ve recently been tapering the program off to leave enough time before the election for processing and callbacks, Whiteside says. Plus, they’ve already surpassed their original goal for the program, receiving around 230 lists of 20 names each.
For Whiteside — and, he hopes, for the still-incarcerated people he’s working with — the program has been a way to still feel like he matters in the political system. Being a part of these voting efforts is a way to invest in his community and be part of a constructive narrative, instead of the destructive one he’d contributed to in the past, Whiteside says.
“I can't legally do the act of voting, but my voice is not silent. Because I have not only the organization backing me up, but I have a community backing me up,” Whiteside says. “You physically can't vote, but your people can. They become an extension of your voice.”
All of these efforts would give more political voice to those with firsthand experience of the criminal justice system, which Whiteside says is important after seeing many people “talking about me, and for me, but they never talked to me.”
Arroyo adds that she sees voting as a privilege that “just shouldn’t be taken away.” She’s planning to volunteer to help keep people comfortable at her local polling station, handing out snacks and sanitizer.
Beyond the election, EXPO plans to keep organizing around voting efforts and other criminal justice reform work. Whiteside says the base they’ve created through the relational voter program can be used for other initiatives in the future.
And even though it’s been a hectic time — Whiteside is also working two jobs, taking online classes for a degree in psychology, and caring for a family (including six new kittens) — he says it’s rewarding work.
“The juggling act gets kind of hectic sometimes, but I feel It's just a part of paying my dues, just like those before me did,” Whiteside says. “For 25 years, this is what I wanted to do. And the blessing for me is the opportunity to do it. So I'll figure out when I'm going to sleep.”