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Let felons vote? Dems and GOP (surprise!) disagree (in Wisconsin anyway)

August 31, 2009 |  6:06 am

Inmates

Should convicted felons be given back the right to vote?

It’s a question that’s being raised in Wisconsin: Legislators there are reviewing a bill that would change the law and allow convicts to vote as long as they’ve been released or are on probation, parole or have received a pardon. Essentially, it would mean that you’re cool to cast a ballot in the Badger State as long as you’re not behind bars.

The Wisconsin voting bill, which can be read here, is being backed by state Democrats -- who control the Legislature by a narrow margin -- and is being spearheaded by state Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee). Her take is that the right to vote is key to reintegrating a convict into society, and a means to help draw a person back onto the straight and narrow.

“This is a basic fairness issue,” Grigsby told the Ticket. “When people come back into the community, we want to encourage employment, family connections and civic participation. We want to encourage responsibility … and voting is one of those things that encourage that.”

No surprise that the idea is being met with far less enthusiasm by her GOP state peers. Their opinion is pretty clear: No.

Make that: NO!

State Rep. Daniel LeMahieu (R-Cascade), a member of the state Assembly Committee on Corrections and Courts, told the Wisconsin State Journal that he’s against the measure – particularly for people who are still on probation or parole.

 “They still have a penalty to pay,” LeMahieu told the paper. “Until that penalty has been fully paid, they shouldn’t be voting.”

It might seem like odd timing for waging such a legislative battle. After all, there are a number of states -- including California -- that have been wrestling with budgetary fights over cutting funds to prisons and potentially shortening the time some offenders spend behind bars. But it’s not, really.

This voting issue became a hot-button topic during last year’s race for the White House, when the push to get out the vote fueled efforts by civil-rights activists to try to register thousands of felons. It’s also a subject that more and more states are weighing in on: Since the late 1990s, at least 18 states have restored some or all voting rights to convicted felons.

Should be interesting to see how this plays out before the next election.

 -- P.J. Huffstutter

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