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Many in jail can vote, but exercising that right isn't easy

Matt Vasilogambros, on

Published in News & Features

The Badger State does not permit a jail ID as an acceptable form of identification to vote. People in jail who want to register to vote or request an absentee ballot must ask corrections personnel to make a copy of their confiscated driver’s license or other state-issued ID.

“This hasn’t been at the forefront of the discussion around voter accessibility,” said Shauntay Nelson, the Wisconsin state director for All Voting is Local. “This is the responsibility of the county jails, as well as election officials, administrators and the legislature. We have to work collaboratively.”

After getting a records request from Wisconsin voting rights groups last year, Capt. Dave Riewestahl, the jail administrator for the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office, found that his 418-bed jail did not have voting policies. As an Army veteran who served overseas in Kosovo, he said he knows the value of the democratic process and defending constitutional rights. But, he said, the state laws presented serious challenges.

Because Wisconsin elections are administered at the city level, to offer in-person voting Riewestahl would have to invite workers from the county’s 18 towns to the jail. So, it made sense to limit voting to absentee by mail.

Still, with the help of local election officials and voting rights groups, Riewestahl has hosted two voter registration drives. Sitting behind a plexiglass and barred barrier in the visitor’s area, volunteers and election officials have registered more than a dozen new voters, sliding important documents through small slits in the divider and speaking through a closed-circuit telephone.

And while scanning the state-issued IDs of incarcerated individuals to meet the state’s voter ID laws does place a burden on his staff, Riewestahl is happy to help. He also has made the state’s voter registration website one of the three approved sites available on wall-mounted tablets in the communal area.


“The people in jail are the people in the community,” he said in an interview. “Voting is an important life skill that needs to be utilized whether someone is in jail or out of custody. If you are eligible and want to vote, the jail has the resources and support to make that happen.”

In New York City, the Legal Aid Society earlier this year lambasted City Hall, the Department of Correction and the state Board of Elections for failing to distribute voter registration information in the city’s jails before last month’s mayoral primary. Corrections officials disputed the letter, telling Gothamist they had “gone above and beyond to facilitate voter engagement.”

In Illinois, establishing polling locations in jails took legislation. In 2019, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure that allows Cook County to set up polling locations in its facilities. The law allows this only for counties with a population over 3 million people—which is only Cook County. Last March’s primary was the first election that the Chicago jail offered in-person voting.

Pritzker signed another measure requiring counties throughout the state to provide three 90-minute civics courses before people are released from prison. The state also requires jails and prisons to provide a voter registration form to people leaving prison or who are in jail.


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