Andrew Drasen has voted twice in his life. The first time was for governor in 2006, when he was 18. The second time was in the 2020 presidential election.
For most of the time between those two votes, it wasn’t legal for him to vote. He’s a felon.
“It makes me feel like a citizen of this country again and not just an occupant of it,” he said of being able to vote for the first time in 14 years. “Our voices shouldn’t be silenced.”
Drasen got hooked on painkillers in high school. That led to a heroin addiction. He ended up in prison twice: “I had to battle for almost 15 years of my life.”
In Wisconsin, as in 48 U.S. states, it’s illegal for imprisoned felons to vote. Also in Wisconsin, as in 31 states, it’s illegal for felons to vote if they are out of prison but are still on parole and/or probation. Only Maine and Vermont never remove an adult citizen’s ability to vote, regardless of their criminal status.
“Voting is a state-by-state issue. There is no national policy that guarantees the vote, even though there should be,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project.
Now 32, Drasen said he has been clean since January 2018, has a steady job as a car salesman and is living in Mount Pleasant. He voted by mail in the Nov. 3 election, the first time he’s been able to cast a ballot since first being convicted of a felony in 2008 — a repeat possession of marijuana offense.
“Our elected officials, they should be elected by their constituents,” he said. “I’m still a resident of the United States, of Wisconsin, Racine (County) and Mount Pleasant … I feel like the people who dictate where our money goes, where our taxes go, what laws are enacted, what laws aren’t enforced: I feel like I should still have a say in who determines all these things, how I can live my life.”
Looking to come full circle
Ramiah Whiteside helped more than 4,000 people to register and to make a plan to vote. But he isn’t allowed to cast a ballot. It’ll be at least another 20 years until he’s allowed to participate in an election, unless something changes.
In 1995, while speeding away from police in a stolen vehicle, Whiteside crashed into another car. The car he was driving ran off the road. Three people waiting at a bus stop and Whiteside’s passenger, his 15-year-old cousin, were killed.
He was sentenced to 47 years, the maximum in the case. But after spending 24 years as a model inmate, he got out on parole. Soon after, the judge who sentenced Whiteside to 47 years presided over Whiteside’s wedding ceremony.
“That’s full circle,” he said at the time.
Now, Whiteside serves as a coordinator with EXPO, short for EX-Prisoners Organizing. When Whiteside got out in 2019, one of his first projects was to use inmates’ personal networks to expand the electorate in Wisconsin.
Whiteside and his fellow workers/volunteers connected with more than 1,000 current inmates, asking them to compile a list of 20 people they knew who were not in prison and may not know they were able to vote. Or may not know how to vote.
Eight hundred inmates replied to EXPO’s query. EXPO then went about connecting with as many of those 16,000 people as possible, making sure they were registered to vote and had a plan to cast a ballot — Whiteside was personally responsible for 217 inmates’ lists, amounting to more than 4,300 people.
The inmates can’t vote. But others can be advocates for them at the ballot box.
Whiteside said that a lot of ex-felons in Wisconsin don’t realize their voting rights are restored once they are “off paper,” meaning they are no longer on probation or parole. The same goes for many minor offenders who only have misdemeanors on their record: for one reason or another, many of those non-felons or ex-felons incorrectly think it’s illegal for them to vote.
“You’d be surprised how many people are eligible (to vote) but don’t believe they’re eligible or don’t know they’re eligible. A lot of people think, just because they have a felony, they’re barred for life. They don’t,” Whiteside said.
In several states, but not in Wisconsin, felons lose their right to vote for life, even after their sentence is served. But people with felonies, or even allegations of felonies, on their record often fall for the misconception that their right to vote is lost forever.
Throughout the election season, Whiteside was among a cohort of volunteers who drove voters in underserved Milwaukee neighborhoods to the polls. While doing that, Whiteside and others would take the time to help inform riders about their rights and get access to jobs.
“I cannot actively vote,” Whiteside said. “But there are thousands of people around me who can but don’t know they can. So, if you want to perpetuate change, this is how you do it.”
Prisoners and election maps
After a surgery as a young woman, Niki Wilichowski was prescribed painkillers. After that, as she continued seeking relief from both physical and emotional trauma, she got hooked on heroin. Then she started selling it. That’s what got her sent to prison as a felon.
Wilichowski got out of prison in December and has spent much of her time working with EXPO and with the American Civil Liberties Union. She has been appealing to state-level elected officials to change laws regarding voting rights.
Wilichowski doesn’t think that people in prison should be able to vote, but once they get out of prison, they should get that right back.
“If you’re paying taxes, you should be able to vote,” Wilichowski said. “I have a job. I pay my taxes. Why can’t I vote?”
Bills that would return the right to vote to Wisconsin’s paroled felons have been proposed several times in the past decade, but haven’t gone anywhere.
Another bill, proposed in 2019 by three Democrats, aimed to address alleged use of prison populations to gerrymander the state. It, too, stalled.
Like children who are too young to vote but live in a voting district, prisoners locked up in a voting district are included in the drawing of election maps. Wilichowski and Porter both said this can be used to gerrymander, since large prisons tend to be in rural areas while the people who fill those prisons tend to come from more urban areas.
“If they are good enough to count in our census so that communities can gain dollars from their existence … they should be able to vote and have a voice,” said state Rep. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. “When individuals are engaged in democracy, it makes whoever is elected pay attention to their interests.
“They (inmates) are still going to do the time. We’re not going to stop the punishment. But it does not mean that they should lose their God-given rights.”
Porter said: “It has worked in function to dilute the political power of entire communities due to disproportionate impact of felony disenfranchising policies on certain communities, particularly high incarceration communities that are over-represented with Black and Brown residents.”
In both Maine and Vermont, all prisoners vote absentee in elections based on their last known address before being locked up. Not only does this help the incarcerated people maintain ties to where they actually reside, but it also diminishes the ability of inmates locked up in one facility to vote as a bloc that could significantly sway local elections.
Research published this year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that giving back the right to vote to prisoners would likely only have marginal effects on elections.
Turnout rates of people recently released from prison tend to be far lower than the average population, usually between 5% and 18%, according to three studies cited in the M.I.T. study.
“Our findings suggest that if states allowed people to vote while incarcerated for felonies, this change would result in relatively few additional votes … we suggest that policymakers should consider these laws based on moral arguments rather than expectations about how they might change elections,” the study stated.
Wilichowski plans to move to Illinois to go to college sometime in 2021. Even though formerly incarcerated felons are allowed to vote in Illinois, Wilichowski still wouldn’t be able to because of Wisconsin’s laws — despite the change of address.
When it comes to giving felons back their voting rights, Wilichowski is less concerned with swaying elections as she is with helping formerly incarcerated people feel welcomed back into free society.
By not allowing people released back into the public to vote, “you’re halting the reintegration process … by telling people ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” Wilichowski said.
She says the work she has been doing since getting out, particularly the work with formerly incarcerated people, has helped her stay sober. Not everyone in her situation has been so fortunate.
In just the first 10 months after her release, Wilichowski said she has lost seven friends to overdose deaths. That’s one of the reasons, to her, giving the vote back faster can help re-establish the bonds to society they need.
Wilichowski said she connects the nationwide unrest over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to laws that leave people feeling unheard.
“Riots are happening because people think they have no voice,” Wilichowski said. “The psychological impact … that’s the one thing people might not realize.