Under the buzz of hair clippers, men sitting in Much Better barbershop didn’t ponder New Year’s Eve plans or talk shop on the Bucks or the Packers.
The usual banter found at this north side business centered on a weightier topic — taxation with representation for more than 63,000 Wisconsin residents who cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws.
Ventae Parrow Bey, 44, is one of them.
He was released from the Wisconsin prison system in 2001, but has spent the last 13 years “on paper.”
In Wisconsin, individuals who are “on paper” — on parole, probation or extended supervision — lose their right to vote until they complete their post-incarceration sentence.
There’s now an effort underway to restore those rights for them.
“When you think about this, you are taxing me, but you are telling me I can’t vote,” Bey said.
He expects to be off paper this year and plans to register to vote.
“It’s like an oxymoron…. How is it fair to tax someone that you are not going to allow to have a representation?” he asked. “If I can’t have representation, then you need to stop taxing me. You need to leave my money alone.”
Ramiah Whiteside was released in 2019, but will not be off paper until 2042 before he is eligible to vote. He’s now a prison inreach coordinator with EXPO, an advocacy organization supporting system-involved individuals.
Whiteside said voting would allow him to have a connection with the government or hold elected officials accountable.
“I’m not a full citizen. But as far as tax purposes go with the IRS, I am a full-fledged citizen because they want their money,” he said. “I can pay the full amount of taxes, but I can’t give you half a vote. I can’t give you a quarter of a vote.
“It’s a modern reflection of taxation without representation. Clearly, there is a parallel.”
The banter was part of EXPO’s people and politics conversations at Much Better Barbershop, 6119 W. Capitol Drive. The monthly conversations tackle issues facing those impacted by the criminal justice system. It also is intended to create opportunities for this often-overlooked population to engage with political leaders.
The talks aimed to galvanize support around efforts to enfranchise the more than 63,000 Wisconsin residents — or roughly the population of West Allis — who are ineligible to vote because they are on parole, probation or extended supervision.
EXPO, or EX-incarcerated People Organizing, plans to reintroduce 2019 legislation later this month to restore voting rights for individuals upon release from Wisconsin prisons.
The group’s effort is part of a national movement to end felony disenfranchisement, which affects 5.2 million Americans. A majority of them are people of color who cannot vote because of laws denying the ballot for those convicted of felonies, according to the Sentencing Project.
If passed, the measure would align with other states, including Illinois, Michigan and Indiana, that already reinstated voting rights upon release, even if they are on parole or probation.
Felony disenfranchisement continues to imprison individuals long after they leave prison, said Peggy West-Schroder, EXPO’s statewide campaign coordinator. That’s especially true in Wisconsin, where the length of sentences for people on paper is three times longer than the national average, she said.
The national average for a nonviolent conviction on paper is three years and five for a violent or sexual assault conviction, she said. The average supervision in Wisconsin is about 15 years for a nonviolent conviction and 20-25 years for a violent conviction, she noted.
That’s a result of tough on crime bills passed in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, said EXPO’s Executive Director Jerome Dillard. He called the state’s extended sentences excessive.
“Truth in sentencing gave you two terms, where you’re sentenced to 10 years inside and 10 years out or 20 inside and 10 out,” Dillard said. “There’s dual sentencing under truth in sentencing and that’s what keeps individuals on supervision for these long periods of time.”
Dillard said he has several staff members who will not be able to vote until 2030 or 2050. And these people are productive members of society working and paying taxes, yet have no say so in who represents them in City Hall, in Madison, in Washington D.C. or even who sits on their children’s school board, he added.
“That itself is alienating people from feeling like they are part of America,” Dillard said. “Taxation without representation is wrong. It’s the very issue that this country was founded on when the British were taxing us and… taking our money and we didn’t have no say. So they went to war and formed our own state.”
A ‘Manchin Moment’
Madison’s political climate may provide a repeat of the group’s 2019 efforts to enfranchise the formerly incarcerated. But Whiteside, who facilitates the barber shop discussions, wants the bill brought to the floor, debated and not gaveled out as it was in 2019.
He called this his Manchin moment. It’s a reference to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who has been called out by members of Congress for flip flopping on the Build Back Better bill. Elected officials, Whiteside said, must explain their position on the record.
“Why is it so important that you deny me my right to vote which is connected to my citizenship?” he asked. State legislators “should be held accountable and allowed to present that to the general floor, rather than being a ‘no’ behind closed doors.”
Other measures in the “unlock the vote” bill include addressing prison gerrymandering. The group wants the decennial census to count incarcerated individuals based on their last place of residence instead of where they are imprisoned. Many state prisons are located in majority-white areas and those federal dollars remain there long after individuals return home, often to urban areas like Milwaukee, West-Schroder noted.
The bill wants to address ballot access for pre-trial detainees. West-Schroder noted that many people don’t realize those awaiting trial in state county jails are eligible to vote if they have not been convicted of a crime. In some cases, people serving certain misdemeanors in prisons still retain the right to vote.
While there is a process for detainees to request a ballot, West-Schroder noted that process doesn’t always work. She hopes to work with legislators to draft policies to ensure ballot access inside the jail and for those serving misdemeanor sentences inside prisons.
“We just want to make sure that everybody who should have access to the ballot does have access,” West-Schroder said.
The bill also includes an educational component that informs people of their voting rights once released and instructs department of corrections officials to provide a means to help releasees register to vote.
West-Schroder noted some people are unaware that their rights have been restored when they got off of paper. She said they believe there is permanent felony disenfranchisement in Wisconsin.
“We’ve run into people all the time that have had their rights restored for 30 years, 20 years and 10 years and don’t know it…,” she said. “A lot of misinformation keeps people from voting.”
Barbershop owner, Derrick Patterson Jr., voted for the first time in 2018. From the age of 12, Patterson said he was either incarcerated or on some form of supervision until 27. And not having the opportunity to vote in pivotal elections like Barack Obama’s historic run for president troubled Patterson.
“I watched Obama become president and I was incarcerated when that happened,” he said. “I wasn’t able to help with that. It had me feeling a certain type of way.”
Though Patterson was out of prison during Obama’s second term, still being on paper prevented him from voting. But he did everything he could to help those who could vote, even offering rides to the polls. Patterson said he felt a sense of pride to vote in his first presidential election in 2020.
“It kind of feels good to have that right back to vote,” the 33-year-old Patterson said. “I can show a sticker and a badge for Biden and Harris, but I can’t show one for Obama. But you know this is history too. This is the first minority vice president. I just want to restore rights for people who served their debt.”