This story was originally published in the Sheboygan Press.
People often assume that if they or loved ones are in jail, they can’t vote. That’s not the case.
A majority of people in jail are eligible to vote — but face some of the largest barriers to voting of any population.
Of the around 13,000 people in county jails statewide in 2020, only 50 cast a ballot, a report by All Voting is Local, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and ACLU of Wisconsin estimated.
Since 2021, volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Sheboygan County have worked with the Sheriff’s Department — which operates the county jail — to help voters register and get a ballot. Moving forward, volunteers hope to improve incarcerated people’s access to information about candidates and formalize the process of voting from jail.
“We’re really thankful to have this partnership with the League of Women Voters because it’s kind of filled a gap that we recognized that we have, but didn’t really know how to fix, and then they reached out to us,” jail administrator Capt. Patrick Bricco said.
“Voting is one of those fundamental rights that you don’t lose just because you came to jail and … the last thing you want to do is strip somebody of a right that they should have," he said.
The Sheboygan County jail usually holds about 300 people who stay, on average, for over three months (in part because of current delays in the court system), Bricco estimated. A majority of people in jail are being held pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of any crime.
People are eligible to vote in Wisconsin unless currently serving a sentence for a felony or for treason or bribery.
‘It’s like, extreme problem-solving’: Obstacles abound to getting a ballot in jail
Voting from jail can be extremely challenging, even with the help of dedicated volunteers.
For the past few spring and fall elections, League volunteers, who are also certified poll workers for the city, have arranged a day to set up in the jail with their laptops and phones to guide people through the process of voting.
One of the biggest challenges they’ve faced is that less than half of the people they meet in jail have an accepted form of ID on them, which they need to get an absentee ballot, said Mary Liz Towne, one volunteer.
When a person in jail does have an ID on them, longtime jail Chaplain Rick Cawthon makes a photocopy. In some cases, friends or family in possession of a person’s ID can send a photocopy to Cawthon. In other cases, League volunteers can help inmates obtain a free Wisconsin State ID through the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Theoretically, the DMV can email volunteers or Cawthon a receipt of a request for an ID after certifying that inmates, who don’t have access to internet, agree to have the information sent to someone else’s email. The DMV receipt can then be used to request an absentee ballot. In reality, that process can get caught up with delays and glitches, Towne said.
After their day in the jail, League volunteers either mail absentee ballot requests to the appropriate municipal clerks or drive to municipalities across Sheboygan County to hand-deliver them, Towne said. Then, it’s the clerks’ responsibility to send ballots back to the jail. When people in jail get their mail, they fill out and seal the ballot with Cawthon present before mailing it back to their municipal clerk.
Towne described much of this process as a “black hole” of information. Timelines can be tight, but neither people in jail (who lack internet) nor the League of Women Voters can check at any step of the process to see if or when ballots have been mailed to and from clerks and the jail.
“It’s like, extreme problem-solving,” Towne said. “I would say we’re at probably a 20% success rate.
“But what also has been important is those conversations,” she said. “(Incarcerated people) are just appreciative, and we just say, we want you to be a participating member of society, we want you to be involved in your community. Those are things you hope for anyone who’s had some trouble with the law.”
At least three people in the Sheboygan County jail have voted in next week’s election, Cawthon said.
People in jail lack access to information
When people in jail get all the way through to receiving a ballot, many still confront an “information vacuum,” Towne said.
Without access to the internet, people for the most part must rely on calling friends and family to learn about candidates. That costs money ― 69 cents per minute, or more than $10 for a 15-minute phone call. People in jail can also pay to subscribe to print newspapers, Bricco said.
The League hopes to get people in jail free access to Vote411.org on jail kiosks, Towne said. Vote411 is a nonpartisan website launched by the League of Women Voters Education Fund that asks candidates to supply information about themselves.
In today’s “hyper-partisan world,” it has been a challenge to get representation from all candidates on Vote411.org, Towne said.
“But I feel like that’s the best we can do," she added, "until there’s something better that’s non-partisan.”
Process of voting from Sheboygan County jail is not formalized
The Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department’s policy on voting from jail is very broad: that the sheriff will assist eligible inmates with voting.
“We know it’s so much more complicated than that,” Towne said.
“The jail has been very good about welcoming us,” she said. “They give us a day and we just stay there as long as it takes. We walk in with our laptops and phones, and they let us. No one else gets to do that. We totally respect what they do, and we’re thankful that they let us in.
“But I feel that although we’re welcome and accepted, it’s still a very fragile relationship, because there’s nothing really written. It’s a handshake relationship right now, and that’s where we need to move forward,” she said.
A few key people on both sides have been driving the partnership, including Cawthon, who’s been a jail chaplain for almost 19 years and also used to be a poll worker, Towne said.
Prior to the League of Women Voters coming in, people in jail used to have to write to their municipal clerk to ask about voting, Bricco said. Cawthon doesn’t remember anyone in jail asking about it.
Across the state, jail policies on voting vary widely, with some counties lacking any policy at all, but more counties have been establishing detailed policies in recent years.
Changes in the policy on voting from jail could come from the Sheriff or Sheboygan County board.
The Latest from the League
The League of Women Voters of California is celebrating a historic voting rights victory: the right to vote is being restored to nearly 60,000 people who had previously been incarcerated.