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.”