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Voting Rights Restoration Finds New Allies in Wisconsin

As a new bill in Wisconsin generates debate about felony disenfranchisement, a growing number of conservatives have begun to speak out in favor of voting rights restoration.

  • Garima Malhotra
July 23, 2009

CLARIFICATION: While the Rhode Island Restoration of Voting Rights Act (H.B. 7938) did become law while Governor Carcieri was in office,the law went into effect on July 7, 2006 without the Governor’s signature.

Last week, Wisconsin State Representative Tamara Grigsby and Senator Lena Taylor introduced the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights to over 41,000 Wisconsin citizens who are out of prison, living in the community. The bill already has attracted attention, and support from one of Wisconsin’s well-known conservative columnists, James Wigderson

In his column on July 9, Wigderson, a columnist for the Waukesha Freeman, discussed the importance of restoring the right to vote to people on probation and parole. “We should encourage those that have been released to take a responsible role in society, and granting them the vote is an important part of that,” wrote Wigderson. Wigderson, whose articles have been cited as recommended reading on numerous conservative sites, including Musings of a Thoughtful Conservative and, has the ear of Wisconsin’s most conservative county: Waukesha County.  Waukesha County is a Republican stronghold and Wigderson’s support for the Wisconsin bill brings an important voice into the conversation.  

Support for voting rights restoration from conservative allies is not new. There is a growing recognition that felony disenfranchisement laws are contrary to our democratic ideals and stymie successful reentry. Several recent reforms that have restored voting rights or eased the restoration process were approved by Republican governors, including George W. Bush in Texas, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Donald Carcieri in Rhode Island and Charlie Crist in Florida. The late Jack Kemp, a Republican politician and self described “bleeding-heart conservative,” was an outspoken proponent of restoring voting rights.  

Members of the law enforcement and faith communities are also increasingly speaking out against felony disenfranchisement based on their belief in our democracy, the recognition that denying the right to vote to those out of prison runs counter to the purpose of our criminal justice system and the fundamental principles of redemption and forgiveness. Tough-on-crime advocates like Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney and former Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske (now President Obama’s drug czar) have advocated for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.  

The coalition of groups and individuals working to restore voting rights in Wisconsin continues to broaden and diversify.  We hope that James Wigderson’s public stance on this issue will bear fruit, not only helping to pass the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act, but in continuing to build support among conservatives around the country who believe in the right to vote.