ELECTION 2020

Most Iowa felons with newly restored rights haven't registered to vote

But at least 2,550 have joined the state's voting ranks for fall

Chawn Yilmaz of Cedar Rapids shows her identification Tuesday before casting her ballot at an early voting center at 823
Chawn Yilmaz of Cedar Rapids shows her identification Tuesday before casting her ballot at an early voting center at 823 Third St. SW in Cedar Rapids. Yilmaz became eligible to vote this year in Iowa after Gov. Kim Reynolds by executive order restored the voting rights of roughly 35,000 felons in Iowa who had completed their sentences. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — The voting rights of roughly 35,000 felons in the state who completed their sentences were restored this summer by an executive order, but only 2,550 — roughly 7 percent — of them had registered to vote by mid-October in this fall’s election, according to Iowa Secretary of State data.

For advocates who have been pressing for the automatic restoration of voting rights for Iowa felons who complete their sentences, that number represents a good start — but shows more work remains.

“On the one hand, it’s great that over 2,500 people have become eligible to vote and have exercised that right by registering,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, Stringer said that number is also “disappointingly low.”

“We will continue to try to elevate this opportunity for folks,” Stringer said.

Chawn Yilmaz, of Cedar Rapids, said she is one of the 2,550 Iowans who registered to vote after having those rights restored by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ executive order, which automatically restores the voting rights of any felon in Iowa who had completed his or her sentence.

Before the order, those individuals were required to petition the governor directly to have their voting rights restored. Iowa was the last state in the nation with that requirement.

Yilmaz said she was convicted of a felony in 2002 while living in California. The Iowa native was eligible to vote in California after completing her sentence — she said she voted there in 2016 — but could not vote in Iowa when she returned here in 2017.

Yilmaz voted early and in-person on Tuesday afternoon with a friend.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait,” Yilmaz said Tuesday before she went to vote. “When I voted in 2016, I wore that ‘I voted’ button all around. I never took it off. It’s important to me.”

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Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa and Nebraska chapters of the NAACP, said stories like Yilmaz’s are a good start — but only a start.

“We celebrate that thousands of people are now able to exercise their right to vote and have voice as citizens,” Andrews said in an email. “ (2,550) newly empowered voters in less than a month is an admirable start and could make a difference in an election. We are working to see these numbers rise.”

Advocates said one potential hurdle to felons registering to vote could be the confusing nature of the issue recently.

Reynolds’ executive order this summer was the latest tilt of a yearslong seesaw: in 2005, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences. But in 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded that.

Reynolds, a Republican and Branstad’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2017, broke from her predecessor and said she supports the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentences.

But instead of issuing another executive order, she spent roughly a year and a half urging state lawmakers to begin the process of amending the Iowa Constitution. Reynolds said she preferred that method because it would be more permanent than an executive order and not subject o the whims of governors.

Lawmakers in 2019 and 2020 began the lengthy process of amending the state constitution, but the process stalled when some — Senate Republicans, in particular — wanted to add requirements that felons pay all of their court fees and fines before being eligible.

After the Iowa Legislature failed to reach an agreement on the issue earlier this year, Reynolds switched course, issuing her executive order Aug. 5.

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“Gov. Reynolds will continue to advocate for a constitutional amendment regarding felon voting rights, which would be a permanent solution to this issue,” Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said in an email. “In the meantime, her office will continue to work with local county auditors and the Iowa Secretary of State’s office to help any individual looking to navigate this process and vote this year. We also continue to get a lot of positive feedback from individuals who are able to vote this year because of the executive order.”

Reynolds’ order restored the voting rights of roughly 35,000 individuals, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. An unknown portion of those could be non-Iowa residents, a spokesman for the office noted.

As of mid-October, 2,550 Iowans newly eligible as a result of the governor’s order had registered to vote, the Secretary of State’s office said.

Of those 2,550 newly registered voters: 811 registered as Democrats, 745 as Republicans, 53 as Libertarians, 34 with the Green Party and a plurality — 907 — registered with no political party, according to the office.

“My goal is for every eligible Iowan to register to vote and participate in elections,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. “I agree with Gov. Reynolds that Iowans who have served their time deserve a second chance and should be able to make their voices heard by voting. It’s good to see more than 2,500 have already stepped up and registered since early August.”

A spokesman for the Secretary of State encouraged Iowans interested to visit the restoreyourvote.iowa.gov website for more information. Stringer said the ACLU has similar information available at youcanvoteiowa.org.

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