The right to vote: Former Wisconsin inmate says barriers make voting difficult

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — Over the course of our nation’s history, the right to vote has been expanded to reflect the people who live in this country, but people who are incarcerated are still waiting to exercise that right.

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Carlson spent roughly five years in jail on felony charges.

“Returning from my second tour, I was incarcerated for three burglaries,” Carlson said.

In the state of Wisconsin, people with felony charges can not vote until they are off probation, parole or extended supervision. Carlson is now a second year law student and advocate for those who are incarcerated.

“Essentially I can practice law before I’m able to vote,” Carlson said.

While Carlson can’t vote, inmates who are awaiting trial or have been convicted of misdemeanor charges can still cast a ballot.

“Ballots are sent here, they are provided to them with instructions on how to complete them and we assist and mail them,” said La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf.

According to the ACLU in 2020, 13,000 Wisconsinites in a county jail were eligible to cast a ballot, but only 50 did.

“Simply handing a person a form or an application is not going to work,” Carlson said.

Carlson says identification is one of the biggest barriers that prevents inmates from voting.

“I mean the jail knows who that have, even more so, I think to a higher degree a drivers license tell you who a person is,” Carlson said.

Wolf says over the past few years, the county has been working to expand resources available to local inmates. In the La Crosse County Jail, a program coordinator hangs up fliers to inform inmates that an election is coming and they can request an absentee ballot. Wolf says once the election is over, the jail program coordinator then helps inmates go on to find out if their ballot was counted.

“To go on, fill it out, we assist them if they need. We give them access to a computer or give them a paper form where they list their most recent address and so forth,” Wolf said.

Wolf says the La Crosse County jail administrator works closely with inmates to make the process as easy as possible.

“Provide the assistance to them if they request it and most of them do, so we do help them,” Wolf said.

Carlson says he hopes to see inmates across the country be given the resources they need and says he wants everyone, including those with felony convictions, be given the right to cast a ballot.

“Those who are closest to the problem are also going to be closest to the solution,” Carlson said.