Government

Iowa among nation's worst when it comes to banning felons from voting

Florida voters have chance to change their state law in Tuesday's election

A woman votes at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A woman votes at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa is one of three states — along with Kentucky and Florida — that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions, unless they complete the state’s prohibitive restoration process and get approval from the state government.

In Florida, however, the state’s felon disenfranchisement law could soon change — voters will weigh in on a constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents who have completed their sentences.

Nationwide, some 6.2 million citizens cannot vote or hold office because they have felony records, according to The Sentencing Project — a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center that aims to reduce incarceration rates in the United States and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Of those disenfranchised voters, approximately 52,000 live in Iowa, nearly 7,000 of whom are African-American.

Data from The Sentencing Project show that in 2016, Iowa’s imprisonment rate was 282 inmates per 100,000 residents, with 8,998 people incarcerated, 29,819 on probation and 5,901 on parole. Of those, the data show African-Americans were incarcerated at a ratio of 11 to 1 when compared to the white inmate population.

Restoring rights

As of Friday, the governor’s office said it had 25 pending applications from felons seeking to restore their voting rights and expected to have those applications completed by Election Day. So far this year, Gov. Kim Reynolds has restored the voting rights of 65 people, the governor’s office said.

“Some individuals have submitted incomplete applications, in which case our office works with the individual to identify the additional information necessary so that the application can be considered,” Brenna Smith, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an email. “The governor’s practice is to restore the voting rights of all individuals who have discharged their sentence and have paid their court costs, restitution and fines, or are current on payments and making a good-faith effort to continue to pay those costs.”

Reports compiled on the Iowa Legislature website show an average 23 post-conviction felons had their voting rights restored each year over the past seven years.

Twenty-eight felons had their voting rights restored in 2017, with Reynolds granting 17 requests and her predecessor Terry E. Branstad granting 11 requests that year.

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In 2011, former Gov. Branstad restored the voting rights of three people. The following year, 17 had their rights restored, and in 2014 Branstad restored the rights of 23 people. 2016 was a bit of an anomaly with the rights of 106 people being restored, though the governor’s office did not provide details. There was no data available for 2013 and 2015.

The restoration process

Felons in Iowa seeking to have their voting rights restored have to go through a cumbersome process, said Veronica Lorson Fowler, communications director for the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union.

“Some people looking at the application may think to themselves, ‘It’s only one page,’ but it’s only one page the way a tax form might be only two pages,” she said. “Putting together the required materials and documentation is daunting. There are a lot of materials the applicant is required to gather, and with that comes a lot of additional forms that they need to fill out in order to request that information and documentation. And, if they mess up, there are legal penalties.”

The application process is divided into five steps, according to a guide on the ACLU website. First, the person seeking to restore their right to vote must obtain and fill out an application for the restoration of citizenship rights.

Next comes the acquisition of the supplementary materials, such as a copy of the person’s complete criminal history and documentation from the courts that show the applicant is current on their payments of restitution, fines and court costs. If the fees have not been paid in full, the applicant must include a written explanation as to why.

All of those materials must then be complied and mailed to the governor’s office.

Fowler said because the application process is complicated, those who are able may opt to hire an attorney to help navigate their way through.

“That’s how difficult the process is,” she said. “That’s how high the stakes are.”

Governors have control

Since 1990, according to the New York Times, changing attitudes have led many states to ease bans on political participation for people with felony records, but in Iowa the state’s felon disenfranchisement law seems to waiver from one extreme to the other depending on who is in the governor’s office.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in July 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order that restored voting rights to Iowans who completed sentences for felony convictions and provided for ongoing restorations to people completing sentences thereafter. In the nearly six years it was in effect, the order restored voting rights to an estimated 115,000 Iowans.

Vilsack’s order was rescinded in 2011, despite the opposition of several voting rights organizations, when Branstad took office, again imposing Iowa’s pre-2005 law of permanent disenfranchisement for all people with felony convictions on their records. Five years later, Branstad announced he would simplify the restoration process, but, according to the Brennan Center, Iowa’s restoration process remains one of the most onerous in the country, specifically citing the 17 applications approved in 2015.

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The ACLU has been heavily involved in the fight against felon disenfranchisement, with several lawsuits over the years having gone of the state and U.S. Supreme Court, however Iowa’s law has held firm.

“We have tens of thousands of people who could not vote because of a criminal conviction in their background, even after they’ve completed their sentences, done their probation or parole and paid restitution and all of those things,” Fowler said. “So now, we are pushing for a constitutional amendment, but that is a super heavy lift — you have to get two consecutive General Assemblies, which is two sessions of the Iowa Legislature, to vote in favor of that, and then that would put it on the ballot for a popular vote. So that’s very long term and very complicated.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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