MILWAUKEE, WI – When Quentin Blackburn was sent to prison for his first felony conviction in the 1990s, the consequences were clear: he could no longer vote or possess a firearm. It wasn’t until last month that the 48-year-old Milwaukee man found out his right to vote was restored when he finished serving his most recent sentence seven months earlier.
“It’s new news to me,” said Blackburn, who went to prison for drug crimes and now works as a packer in a factory that makes cleaning wipes and other products. “I thought it was pretty much like gun possession. ... Once you're stripped from your rights to vote or carry a firearm or whatever it's for the duration, you know?”
Community activists believe there are thousands of former prisoners like Blackburn across Wisconsin who could be voting but didn't know it — people whose ballots could be a factor next year in a state known for deciding elections by the narrowest of margins. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, helping him clinch the presidency. The state factors heavily into Trump’s reelection strategy for 2020, one of three in the Midwest that are prime territory for groups — pro-Trump or against him — trying to mobilize anyone who’s eligible to cast a ballot.
For EX-Prisoners Organizing, or EXPO, a statewide group of former prisoners, that means fanning out across Wisconsin in an effort to register some 7,000 people before the fall election. From canvassing neighborhoods to holding events at prisons and putting flyers on cars outside community corrections offices, EXPO is trying to educate people about their rights and get them to turn out in 2020. The presidential election will top the November ballot but several other critical state and local races — including legislative and judicial offices — will also be decided.
Their work also could affect turnout among African Americans in Wisconsin, which dropped between the 2012 and 2016 elections at a level greater than the national average, a shift that — along with Trump’s improved performance with white voters — factored into his win. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one out of nine African Americans of voting age in Wisconsin is “disfranchised,” or ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction, compared to one out of 50 Wisconsin voters. African Americans comprise 5% of Wisconsin’s voting age population, the ACLU says.
“Trump won this state by less than 1 percentage point, so we have to care about this,” said Jerome Dillard, the group’s state director, who is African American and said he regularly meets former prisoners who believe they could be sent back to prison just for registering to vote.
Milwaukee, where Democrats will hold their party's nominating convention in July, is home to about two-thirds of Wisconsin's black population. It's among the most segregated metro areas in the country, with white residents largely living in suburbs or in trendy neighborhoods along Lake Michigan while black residents are concentrated on the west and northwest sides where there are fewer jobs, more poverty and high rates of crime and incarceration.
“I have never seen a black community in this shape like here in Milwaukee. I've been through Illinois, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and I've never seen such hopelessness,” said Sylvester Jackson, a former prisoner who works as an organizer with EXPO. “The black community here is like it's in a smog of pain and despair.”
About two dozen states have extended voting rights to convicted felons since 1997, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates for changes in the U.S. criminal justice system. At the same time, there have been efforts that critics say are aimed at tightening voter rights or voting rolls.
States that have removed bans on voting in recent years include Florida, Virginia and — just last month — Kentucky, where the new Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear restored rights to vote and hold public office to over 140,000 people. In Wisconsin, EXPO is trying to change the law to allow ex-prisoners to begin voting when they leave prison, rather than when they complete their entire sentence, including parole.
Yet in Wisconsin late last year a judge also ordered up to 209,000 registered voters removed from the rolls because they may have moved away. This was a victory for conservatives who called for removing the names of people who didn’t respond to a mailing within 30 days. In Florida, where a ballot measure restored voting rights for up to 1.5 million people last year, a legal battle erupted over a Republican effort to require some convicts to pay their full fines and fees before voting. GOP lawmakers there argue that offenders should first have to repay their victims or their full debt to society.
In Wisconsin, the conservative law firm that sued to have people removed from the voting rolls says it's working to ensure that there are “clean and fair elections.”
The GOP is focused on having accurate voter rolls, said Bob Spindell, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Election Commission, and low turnout among black Democratic voters in 2016 was due to a lack of enthusiasm for candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I have not seen any suppression of the black vote in Milwaukee,” Spindell said. “If there's a problem, I would say it's the candidate.”
Even once voting rights are available, turnout among former prisoners has been “modest,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project.
However, “In districts or states where the vote is very close, encouraging voter participation among any constituency or voting block is really important,” Porter said. “That may impact the election.”
Still, EXPO organizers know they have a difficult task ahead. Some people they are trying to reach went to prison before they even hit the legal voting age of 18, so voting is unfamiliar. Others may have been raised in families or environments where voting wasn’t a regular occurrence. And once out of prison, many people are struggling to just find a job and a place to live, Jackson said.
But being in prison also helps politicize some people, Porter said. They leave prison changed people, and even if they can’t vote, they want to participate through political activism. EXPO is hoping to leverage those people as well, asking them to talk to family and friends and get them to participate.
Blackburn, an African American who learned he could vote while attending a community meal at a Milwaukee church, said it was “great news” that he will be able to cast a ballot against Trump, whom he believes is a racist who has divided the country. He said he regretted not being able to vote for Barack Obama for president, and that he planned to talk with his friends and family about participating in 2020.
“When I became a felon, it was like something was stripped from me,” he said. “I felt like I didn't matter, you know, in a sense. So now I can vote now. It's good news. I'm happy.”
Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger contributed.