116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Gazette Editorial Board
Should Iowans care if convicted felons ever get back their right to vote in this state? We think so. But what's the right approach? Is it:
l Automatic restoration of voting rights once a felon has finished prison time, parole and probation, as former Gov. Tom Vilsack instated in 2005.
l Or, current Gov. Terry Branstad's executive order to reinstate an application process, which he used in his previous administrations before winning re-election to a fifth term in 2010. It requires the felon to provide a full credit report or documentation that all fines and court costs and victim restitution has been paid.
We think there's a better, fairer process somewhere between those extremes.
Vilsack did away with the application process and restored voting rights for up to 100,000 ex-felons. He was on the right track by establishing a more non-political procedure. One that was simpler and less time consuming than the application and review procedures that can take six months or longer.
But questions lingered about accountability. The Muscatine County Attorney's Office, for example, quickly filed a petition that claimed Vilsack's overstepped his authority to issue a blanket clemency while not accounting for fines and restitution.
Branstad's order reinstated an application requirement that aims at making sure all the felon's debts, not just the prison and parole/probation time, are paid. That seems fair, at first glance.
However, problems with that system have surfaced. An Associated Press review shows that of 8,000 felons who have completed their prison sentences and community supervision since Branstad's reversal order, fewer than a dozen have successfully completed the application process and regained their rights. The process also requires applicants to supply a criminal history report at their expense.
Critics say the entire procedure is too onerous, is financially unrealistic because most released felons are poor and discourages felons from reintegrating as contributing members of society.
Only three other states require an application process. Even Kentucky, Florida and Virginia don't require a credit report. The vast majority of states, 38, allow most felons to automatically regain their voting rights once their sentences are completed. Maine and Vermont never take away those rights.
We think there's still justification for suspending voting rights if you commit a major crime against society. But once felons have served their time and also demonstrate a good-faith effort is in place to repay their debts, why should society not want to encourage them to stay on the right track by being more engaged in the community - which includes the act of voting? That's good for everyone.
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