Wisconisn IVE work changes the narrative around voting, incarcerated people’s role in democracy

Integrated Voter Engagement is designed to change narratives. In the leadup to the 2020 election, Gamaliel affiliates nationwide used IVE to do just that by growing their bases, moving issue campaigns, and connecting the democratic process to local issues.  But in Wisconsin, Gamaliel statewide affiliate WISDOM worked with first-time voters and incarcerated people to make clear that participation in democracy is for everyone – even those who cannot vote. 


WISDOM’s strategy grew out of their attempt to recruit for its Relational Voter Program (RVP) after the 2016 election, said IVE Coordinator Yolanda Perkins. WISDOM adopted RVP, an organizing strategy developed by Organizing Empowerment that emphasizes building relationships as part of get-out-the-vote campaigns, in their efforts to reach low-voter-turnout communities. However, WISDOM had few relationships in those areas – and found that the people who had the necessary connections couldn’t afford to volunteer. In response, WISDOM began adapting RVP to its communities’ needs – including raising money to provide stipends to participants who committed to contacting several people.


“The idea of RVP is relational,” Perkins said. “To have somebody that you have a relationship  with talk to you versus getting a phone call or door knock, it’s more efficient. Plus we use the voter file to target our people, which is good, but those are already existing voters. So [if we’re] trying to reach into a different demographic of folks that don’t exist in the voting group period, so who else better to do it than people’s families?” 


WISDOM’s RVP began in October of 2019 and involved more than 300 volunteers. The RVP was non-partisan and  focused on providing voters with unbiased information and connecting them with resources to ensure their votes were cast. While the pandemic repeatedly disrupted Wisconsin’s primary election, Perkins said this frustration helped RVP volunteers encourage voters to make voting plans and request mail-in ballots. 


“Most felt that the program was more powerful than the individual vote because they got to encourage 10 to 20 family members to actually go vote who never voted before,” Perkins said.


Among the community members invited to participate in RVP were incarcerated people throughout the state. These participants committed to reaching 20 eligible voters and were supported by WISDOM partner organization EXPO (Ex-Incarcerated Persons Organizing). According to Perkins and Wisconsin State Director David Liners, EXPO’s prison inreach program is one of the only programs of its kind in the United States, and the first in Wisconsin.


Ramiah Whiteside, an EXPO member who supported incarcerated RVP workers, said he was motivated to participate because he grew up in a low-turnout community and, as a formerly incarcerated person, isn’t eligible to vote.


The prison inreach work equipped participants with information about the election process, taught them to interpret candidates’ platforms and campaign promises, and explained ballot issues. Whiteside said this focus was crucial to building power and confidence among both volunteers and the people they reached. 


“Historically my demographic, where I’m from, we don’t vote. That’s crap! There’s a lot of people running around my demographic who can vote or who are eligible and don’t know it,” Whiteside said. “I want my people and my community to recognize the power they have.” 


Whiteside worked with 226 incarcerated people, although hundreds more were interested in the program. The volunteers who worked with Whiteside in turn reached out to more than 4,000 eligible, first-time voters who committed to voting or registering to vote. 


“Do you know how powerful that is? To be voiceless or unknown my whole life and you guys [Gamaliel, WISDOM and EXPO] gave me the support to say wait a minute Ramiah, not only are you important, but here’s what you need to do to voice that,” Whiteside said. “We extend that to our people.” 


Whiteside said many participants were proud to work with EXPO and saw RVP as an opportunity to connect with their support system in a new way. 


“They were proud to be like, ‘Hey man, I talked to my daughter about voting for the first time. I talked to my son, or my nephew, or my mom for the first time ever not asking for a pair of shoes, or not…wishing I was home,’” Whiteside said. “It changed the narrative, and it helped them to engage and be productive, and constructive, and pro-social.”


“Their feedback has been like Christmas. Their gift is, ‘I’m proud because I got to be important. I’m proud because I got to be something other than the bad guy.’”


Efforts to keep incarcerated participants politically engaged continued after the election. Whiteside is still in contact with several participants and is working to provide information about the Wisconsin state budget. Participants who were released since joining the RVP are invited to participate in WISDOM and EXPO’s public actions.


Perkins is also focused on keeping her base engaged in preparation for the 2022 gubernatorial and Senate elections.


“If I’m doing my job correct, in 2022 we want to have just as big of a push as we have for a presidential election, because we all know locals are more important,” Perkins said. “That’s my goal.”