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EXPO pushes for voting rights for people on community supervision

Posted at 6:05 PM, Feb 10, 2022

MILWAUKEE — Ramiah Whiteside's first encounter with the justice system came when he was just 11 years old.

"From not wanting to to be in foster homes and things of that nature, I got that label designated as a runaway, which led me to detention. My stint in detention, of course, exposed me to people who had actually committed crimes," Whiteside said.

Then, at 17, he was involved in a deadly high speed police chase. He ended up in prison for more than two decades for that. He was released in 2019, but he's on supervision until 2042.

According to EXPO (Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing) Wisconsin, the average length of parole in Wisconsin is 38 months compared to 22 months nationwide. That ranks Wisconsin third nationally for time expected to be spent under parole.

Whiteside, because he's still on paper (under supervision), one of his basic rights is missing.

"I feel, personally, that it's directly connected to my citizenship. I am not a full citizen unless I can cast a ballot," he said.

In Wisconsin, convicted felons can vote once they've served their entire sentence. However, that sentence includes probation, parole or extended supervision.

So, even though Ramiah was released three years ago, it will be decades before he's able to vote for the first time in his life at nearly 70 years old.

"Being voiceless and invisible, it has an impact on you," Whiteside said. "For so long being on the sidelines and wanting to be able to contribute and participate, that has allowed me to appreciate the fact that we need to make changes and unlock that vote."

There are about 44,000 Wisconsinites currently on community supervision and not yet able to vote. Voting restrictions placed on those serving sentences also disproportionately impacts communities of color. According to EXPO, one out of every nine African Americans are disenfranchised, compared to one out of every 50 Wisconsin voters.

Whiteside has been working with EXPO on the organizations "Unlock the Vote" campaign. Unlock the Vote was first introduced to the state legislature in 2019, but didn't get a hearing. The organization is reintroducing it this year to the state legislature.

Peggy West-Schroder, the statewide campaign coordinator for EXPO, said the goal of the legislation is to "restore people's voting rights as they come out of prison, versus making them wait until they are off supervision."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 21 states already restore voting right automatically upon release.

West-Schroder said ultimately she would like to see even those who are currently incarcerated to have voting rights in Wisconsin.

NCSL reports that in "the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated."

"It's surprising when you think about that our nation was founded on the premises that we would do no taxation without representation, and then knowing that 44,000 of your neighbors are not allowed to vote because they are on supervision," West-Schroder said. "The tenants of supervision are that you have a place to live and that you have a job, so you're paying property taxes and income tax and all kinds of taxes, but you don't have the benefit of representation."

For Whiteside, getting to vote is about being able to make an impact on his community.

"The irony is I've been locked out my whole life, but it's made me appreciate our country and our systems a whole lot more," Whiteside said. "Being able to actually cast a ballot, that leads to being able to be a direct catalyst of change in your community or your zip code."

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