Restore voting rights for all Iowans

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Bonnie Pitz, guest columnist

The League of Women Voters of Iowa works diligently each year to register voters and provide candidate forums and VOTE411.org information to give citizens the information they need to cast an informed vote that counts.

Even as we celebrate the rights we have as citizens of Iowa, there are 56,000 Iowa citizens who are not eligible to vote, including one in five African Americans in Iowa. As we register voters each year, we often meet individuals who would like to register but cannot because of a felony conviction. These citizens are blocked from voting in Iowa, even if they have served their time and probation. Across the country, most states automatically restore voting rights to all citizens completing sentences for past criminal convictions. Only Florida, Kentucky and Iowa permanently deny voting rights for everyone with a felony in their past.

The League was very disappointed by Iowa Supreme Court’s narrow 4-3 decision in Griffin vs. Pate issued on July 1. The Iowa ACLU took up the case because Kelli Jo Griffin, a Montrose resident and mother of four, who was convicted of a non-violent offense in 2008. Kelli was told by her defense attorney at the time that her voting rights would be restored after she completed probation. This was true back in 2008, but Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded this rule in 2011 on his first day back in office as Iowa governor. The change made Kelli and all other Iowa citizens with a felony conviction ineligible to vote.

There is a way to get voting rights back in Iowa, but the process is arduous. The Governor reviews applications for voting rights restoration on a case-by-case basis. Applying costs time and money in acquiring a criminal history check and other information. The state can take up to six months to review an individual’s application. Between 2011 and 2014 an estimated 14,500 people completed their sentence for a felony in Iowa; of that number only 64 had their voting rights restored by Gov. Branstad.

It is important to remember the 56,000 disenfranchised individuals are raising families, working, paying taxes and trying hard to be reintegrated into society. We must be mindful of the consequences our law has for families and extended families. Doesn’t it make sense that those who have paid their debt to society should be reintegrated in the most positive way so they can participate fully in the election process and demonstrate that involvement to their children?

After all, voting is an activity we do as a family and as a community. Lifetime disenfranchisement means in Iowa’s African American communities nearly a quarter of adults and many parents are deprived a say in policies affecting schools, taxes, policing and everything else affecting their family and community. It means that we are creating a permanent underclass in our state that our officials are free to disregard.

We would also be wise to think in terms of a “family focused citizenship.” Children do not learn citizenship only in a school setting but by the actions and beliefs of their families. Why not have parents act as role models and demonstrate the importance of voting and citizenship to their kids? We should give them the chance to discuss political views and their part in the political process and ultimately vote. We should be encouraging maximum participation in our political process.

That is why the League of Women Voters of Iowa provided an Amicus Brief in support of Kelli Jo Griffin in Griffin vs. Pate. The brief set out the case for voting rights restoration as a way to strengthen Iowa’s democracy while at the same time improving the re-entry process for citizens leaving prison and returning to their families and communities.

The League is undeterred by the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision, and we are committed to finding a way to restore voting rights to everyone living and working in our communities, either through a Constitutional Amendment or state law change.

• Bonnie Pitz, of Belle Plaine, is past president of the League of Women Voters of Iowa. More information: www.lwvia.org

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