Many behind bars in Wisconsin are eligible to vote, but few do. Here's how jails might fix that.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has released a list of recommendations to increase ballot access for eligible voters inside county jails across the state.

The recommendations arise from several reports by the ACLU-WI showing that incarcerated individuals may not know they are eligible to vote or don't have a way to register and request a ballot.

In its latest report, the ACLU-WI recommended:

  • Posting information that reminds incarcerated individuals they still have the power to let their voices be heard through voting as a way to reinforce dignity and humanity for those incarcerated.

  • Jail administrators should work with nonpartisan voting rights organizations to register voters inside facilities and conduct voter education programs.

  • Substitute jail booking information for a state ID as proof of address for unhoused or homeless people to meet Wisconsin's voting ID requirement. (The report noted this would require legislative action.)

  • Set, track and maintain benchmarks on the voting process, including racial demographics. This would include regular evaluation of the jail voting process, measurable outcomes, consequences of underperformance and transparency.

  • Standardizing jail voting policies and protocols statewide. This requires state-level buy-in from elected officials, sheriffs and jail administrators, the Department of Corrections and public officials from state legislators to the governor’s office.

  • Involve incarcerated people in drafting jail voting policies to understand how the process can best work for them.

  • Adopt the jail voting model used in the Eau Claire County Jail, which provides eligible voters with election dates, deadlines and opportunities to learn about voting issues via kiosks or other internet-enabled devices.

The report also recommended that jails invest in technology and other internet-enabled devices to access online voter information websites, including the Wisconsin Elections Commission website. It also called for designating a jail social worker to act as the contact person to provide voting assistance.

Unless convicted of a felony, people can vote from behind bars — but few do

Under Wisconsin law, people convicted of a felony cannot vote until completing their sentence. But those serving time for misdemeanors in county jails retain the right to vote. People awaiting trial — even for felony charges — can also vote.

Still, of the nearly 13,000 individuals incarcerated in the state’s 74 county jails, only 50 eligible incarcerated people cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU-WI doesn't have jail vote totals for the Nov. 8 general election. In Milwaukee County Jail, about 40 individuals voted on Nov. 8, according to a Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.

ACLU-WI’s Amanda Merkwae noted the Supreme Court O'Brien vs. Skinner enshrines voting rights for those awaiting trial.

“If someone is legally eligible to vote, they cannot be disenfranchised solely because of their incarceration,” said Merkwae, the organization’s advocacy director. “Without having policies in place ... what good is a right if there's no avenue to exercise it?”

The ACLU has found Wisconsin jails don't have systems set up to help eligible people vote

The ACLU-WI has issued several reports in the past citing exact statutes and policies that need to change at the state level. Merkwae said the needle hasn’t moved “as much as we would hope.”

These new recommendations center on directly affected individuals so policymakers can understand the dehumanizing effects of incarceration and how that plays into low participation in jail-based voting.

The reports found many county jails had no policies and procedures ensuring access to the ballot for eligible incarcerated voters. If a jail did have a policy, it might be vague or depend on jail administrators whether it was followed.

Sheriffs have a duty to ensure voting access in county jails. But the ACLU has found that's often not happening.

In many jails, there is no way for people to register to vote, or check voter eligibility, online. Some also had no procedures for them to request or mail absentee ballots.

The ACLU-WI calls these barriers de facto disenfranchisement, which impacts people of color who disproportionately make up the jail population.

"We're really trying to center what human dignity looks like when we're talking about exercising the right to vote and center human dignity when we're talking about policymaking in general," Merkwae added.

More:Thousands of eligible Wisconsin voters face ballot barriers in jail

Want to learn more?

What: ACLU-WI panel discussion -- Community Conversations: Voting Rights While Incarcerated.Why: Persons who were formerly incarcerated are expected to speak during the event on the impact of "de facto disenfranchisement" and how to center policymaking around the issue.Where: Nō Studios, 1037 W. McKinley Ave. When: Wednesday, Dec. 1, 5 to 7 p.m. You can register at

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin inmates eligible to vote from jail but need help, ACLU says