Government

Branstad defends ban on Iowa felons' voting rights

Governor says he takes restoring rights for felons 'very seriously'

The Supreme Court courtroom in the new Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.(Gazette file photo)
The Supreme Court courtroom in the new Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.(Gazette file photo)

DES MOINES — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday defended a state rule that requires felons to apply to his office in order to have their voting rights restored.

They were Branstad’s first extended public remarks on the subject since a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling upheld the policy.

Branstad also announced Monday his office has streamlined the petition for felons who apply to have their gun possession rights restored; similar changes were made earlier this year to the application for the restoration of voting rights.

Iowa is one of eight states in which felons must have their voting rights restored by the governor or the courts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states restore voting rights upon completion of the sentence or do not revoke voting rights.

Iowa’s rule was challenged in court by voting rights groups, but upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling issued June 30.

Branstad called voting “a privilege,” and said that privilege must balance a person’s rights and responsibilities.

“Restoring voting rights to Iowans who have committed felonies is something that I take very seriously as governor,” Branstad said Monday during his weekly news conference. “To automatically restore the right to vote without requiring the completion of the responsibilities associated with the criminal conviction would severely damage the balance of rights and responsibilities that we all have as citizens.”

Critics of the rule say it places undue stress on a person who has paid his or her debt to society, and that requiring felons to pay all court costs before having voting rights restored unfairly punishes low-income residents.

Branstad said the application is simple and does not require a lawyer, and that paying court costs is a part of the punishment that must be completed.

Branstad said there is more than $699 million in unpaid fines and court costs in Iowa.

“We have a huge amount of people that are not meeting their obligations, that are not paying their court costs. And that really creates disregard for the law and to the responsibilities of citizenship,” Branstad said.

“We expect people to meet their responsibilities in order to get their rights restored,” he added. “That’s the balance. Justice is a balance.”

Earlier this year Branstad’s office streamlined the application for the restoration of voting rights, reducing from 29 to 13 the number of questions on the one-page form.

Branstad on Monday announced a similar tweak that reduces from 43 to 29 the number of questions on the application to have an individual’s gun possession rights restored or to be pardoned.

The tweaks are part of an initiative of the governor’s office to streamline clemency applications.

Branstad insisted the process to have a felon’s gun possession rights restored, despite the newly streamlined application, remains thorough. Branstad said he rules out those who committed violent crimes, and all applicants undergo a criminal-background check through the state Division of Criminal Investigation.

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Branstad said he also personally interviews any individual deemed to be a good candidate for having firearms rights restored or for a pardon.

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