Harkin: Branstad voting rights order part of ‘scary' trend

Policy appears to be strategy to disenfranchise poor, those with limited English skills

Gov. Terry Branstad’s policy on restoring felons’ voting rights is part of a “scary” national trend by Republicans, according to Sen. Tom Harkin.

The Democratic senator said Branstad’s executive order on restoring felon voting rights “makes it look like you’re doing something good, but, on the other hand, I think you may be frustrating a lot of people.”

Harkin never mentioned Branstad by name while criticizing the Republican governor’s reversal of a six-year policy, under which felons automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from state supervision.

Iowa is one of four states where felons must apply to the governor to have voting rights restored. What Branstad’s spokesman called a “simplified, streamlined process” also requires applicants to submit a credit report.

“I certainly applaud any move to remove the stigma of having been incarcerated,” Harkin said. However, he thinks policies like Branstad’s increases the likelihood felons will re-offend.

Not only do felons have to pay fines and serve time, “but when you get out, you still have to pay,” Harkin said. “And you have to pay all your life by not being a full member of our society.”

Restricting felons’ voting right appears to be a strategy of Republican governors and legislators to disenfranchise “the poor, maybe those who don’t speak a lot of English, African-Americans,” Harkin said.

“There’s a national movement among Republicans to do this and it’s really scary,” he said. “State legislatures mainly under Republicans, well, in fact, I would say, all under Republicans, all, all, 100 percent of the restrictive voting laws as far as having picture IDs and all that, all come through Republican governors and Republican legislatures.”

Branstad’s policy may make it look like he’s giving felons an opportunity to restore their voting g rights, “but then you set up all these hoops they have to go through that makes it so difficult.”

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht rejected Harkin’s notion the governor is intentionally making it difficult for felons to regain their voting rights.

“Iowa has a simplified, streamlined process for felons to get their voting rights restored,” Albrecht said. It requires they demonstrate that they have paid restitution to the victim, fines and courts costs.

“It is important that before felons get their voting rights that restitution is paid to victims of their crime,” Albrecht said.

Felons also must obtain a $15 background check and answer 31 questions before Branstad will restore their citizenship rights.

Public records obtained by the Associated Press show fewer than a dozen of the 8,000 felons in Iowa who have finished their prison sentences or been released from community supervision since January 2011 have successfully navigated the process of applying to get their citizenship rights back.

Branstad’s office has denied a handful of others because of incomplete paperwork or unpaid court costs.

The process is new, he added, “and we anticipate more felons applying for voting rights restoration as we move forward.”

Branstad has no plans at this time to change the process, Albrecht said.The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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