It's up to felons to have voting rights restored

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Chandra Bozelko, guest columnist

Last week’s Iowa Supreme Court decision — holding that felonies were “infamous crimes” under the Iowa Constitution — upset justice reform advocates who want voting rights restored for anyone who has a felony record. But this decision from Iowa’s highest court doesn’t have to impact anyone’s access to the polls if they are committed to exercising their rights.

Throughout the country, confusion reigns over people’s understanding of felony convictions and voting rights. No one with a felony conviction is ever permanently barred from voting. Even in the nine states with lifetime bans — a number that is in flux because of recent developments in Virginia — people with felony records can apply to have their voting rights restored.

What we’re really talking about when we speak of “lifetime bans” is a lack of automatic restoration of rights, not permanent exclusion from civic life. All that is required is that the person with the felony record pursues their right to vote.

The problem in Iowa, and every other state that restricts citizens’ voting rights, is that ex-offenders don’t apply to have their rights restored. I realized this myself when I was released from prison. One of my first tasks of re-entry was registering to vote. Even with 13 felony convictions on appeal, re-registering to vote was one of the easiest things for me as I came back to society.

But other people who left prison around the same time didn’t apply to vote, even though they were eligible. Some didn’t know they were eligible, having absorbed the message “felons can’t vote” from so many voting rights campaigns. For others, casting a ballot wasn’t paramount to them. They hadn’t done it before their incarceration and they saw little reason to start the practice in their new life.

Iowa is one of the easiest “lifetime ban” states in which to have your voting rights restored. According to records kept by Gov. Terry Branstad’s office, between 2011 and Feb. 16 of this year, only 163 people with felony records — out of 80,000 in Iowa — applied to have their rights restored. Of those 163 applications 92, or 56 percent, have been granted. Another 34 of those 163 applications were denied because their rights were never lost — applicants mistakenly thought they were barred from their local polling stations when they weren’t. Thirty-one of those 163 applications were denied because the applications were incomplete.

That means that, of all complete applications from people whose rights had been revoked, 92 out of 98, or 94 percent, had their rights restored. The remaining six whose complete applications were denied had not yet finished their sentences. It stands to reason that, if they had finished their sentences, Gov. Branstad’s office would have restored the applicants’ civil rights.

Of course, there is merit to the argument that no state should abridge a citizen’s right to participate in government. Vermont and Maine never suspend anyone’s voting rights, even when they’re incarcerated, because no one loses citizenship when they are convicted of a crime. People who have criminal records are affected by laws enacted by elected officials as much as any other person, maybe even more so.

At least in Iowa, if the right to vote is important enough to someone with a felony record and they pursue restoration, they’re likely to be allowed to head to the polls on that first Tuesday in November. Last week’s court decision wasn’t a death knell for felon voting; it was a wake-up call to people with convictions to get in gear and apply to have their rights restored.

• Chandra Bozelko is the author of Up the River: An Anthology and her blog, Prison Diaries — www.prison-diaries.com — was honored by the Webby Awards and won first place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual blog contest. Twitter: @aprisondiary

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