The pair of bills, introduced to the state legislature today, would further limit voting rights for people who have been convicted of a felony.
Under current state law, those people convicted of a felony cannot vote until they have finished their sentence.
They also can’t vote until they are off probation, parole, or extended supervision.
The bills, introduced by Republican Representative Shae Sortwell of Two Rivers and Senator Duey Stroebel of Saukville, would tighten who could vote, allowing only those convicted of a felony who have paid off all fines, costs, fees, surcharges, and restitutions the right to vote.
Representative Sortwell told WORT that the bills are about, “fully paying your debt to society.” Stroebel says that the bills are to help the victims of crime find justice, and that restoration of one’s right to vote should be contingent on all debts to society being paid.
Nicole Porter is the Senior Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project, a non-profit working against mass incarceration in America. Porter says that these new bills are a step in the wrong direction.
“…given that in recent years there’s been effort to eliminate these modern day poll taxes, or these fines and fees obligations are a part of one’s eligibility. Washington state actually last year eliminated the fines and fees obligation for citizens under community supervision, that is on felony probation or parole in order to be able to register to vote. Other states, including Louisiana and Alabama have addressed these fines and fees obligations as well. It is a part of this long history of working to intentionally exclude and marginalize certain citizens from the electorate. It should not be overlooked by residents of Wisconsin the overrepresentation of residents of color in this category,” says Porter.
These bills come with disproportionate effects in an already disproportionate system. A recent report from The Sentencing Project finds that Wisconsin imprisons Black people at a rate higher than any other state in the county.
Madison Representative Francesca Hong says that the bills are part of a larger GOP push across the nation.
“‘(This is) what I’m calling a conservative cookie cutter bill, where a lot of my colleagues are essentially copy-and-pasting template bills from conservative think tanks to continue to regress and undermine our democratic process,” says Hong.
The bills are similar to those passed in Florida in 20-19, which the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, called a poll tax at the time. In 2019 the ACLU challenged the bill, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Florida in a in 20-20 decision.
Larry Dupuis, Legal Director at the ACLU, says that the issue is hard to overcome for many people in Florida already.
“The practical reality that Florida demonstrates is how incredibly administratively impossible this has become for the criminal legal system in Florida. (It) has all sorts of problems with documentation of whether or how much people owe. So there’s all kinds of difficulties for people, even people who can pay, determining how much they owe and then paying it off. It’s just been a complete nightmare in terms of just administering this process in Florida, and the same would be true here,” Dupuis says.
When the bills were posted online, people called the bills a new poll tax for Wisconsin. Nicole Porter says that America has a long history of poll taxes with felony charges.
“…that obligation is similar to restrictions imposed on black residents during the Jim Crow era to really impose barriers to voting, barriers to access to the ballot…to restrict the black electorate at the time,” Porter says.
The bills are currently circulating for co-sponsorship.
Photo coutesy: Chali Pitmann / WORT Flickr