The Iowa Department of Corrections is implementing a new, automated system that should make it easier for individuals with felony convictions to regain their voting rights once they’re out of prison and finished with probation or parole.
Though it’s unknown whether the new system will make it easier for felons to regain the ability to vote, Veronica Fowler of the ACLU said it’s a step in the right direction.
“You know, we don’t have a crystal ball, so we do not know how this is all going to play out,” she said. “Of course, the way to permanently fix this is to pass a constitutional amendment.”
With the Kentucky governor in December issuing an executive order restoring the voting rights of felons in that state, Iowa is now the only state that permanently disenfranchises felons.
To regain the right to vote in Iowa, a person convicted of a felony must submit an application to the governor’s office that lists details about their criminal record with specific dates and criminal statute information, said Cord Overton, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections.
“Answering some of those questions — especially where they have to list their most recent felony conviction — can be difficult for some because a lot of people that come to us probably had multiple felonies, and they’re not sure how to answer those questions,” Overton said.
Departing inmates might not know which conviction to list, what the criminal statute is for that crime, or the dates associated with the crime, he added.
“So, since they’re already under our supervision, and since we already have all that information in our database, it’s just easier for us to work with that person to get the information they need to answer those questions,” he said.
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Now, a counselor will work with each inmate before their release to complete the application. All the inmate has to do upon release is submit the paperwork to the governor’s office.
“Every inmate in the institution has a counselor, and the counselors know when an inmate’s release date is coming up, whether they’re going to probation or parole or they’re getting discharged,” Overton said. “So, it’s their job to work with them on their exit packets and exit strategies so when they hit the ground after they leave us, they have the best chance possible to succeed.”
Each year, approximately 5,000 inmates are released, Overton said. Of those, about 1,000 are discharged from prison. The remainder are ones who have completed either probation or parole.
During the 2019 fiscal year, Overton said 4,692 individuals were released, all of whom would have qualified for the new, auto-filled form that will now be included in an inmate’s discharge packet.
“I think, once fully implemented, it’s reasonable to expect that about all 5,000 people per year who are ending their sentence will be getting this new version of a form which is autofilled for them,” he said. “That will allow them to apply much more easily to the governor’s office to get their voting rights restored,”
Back and Forth
Fowler said the new system, while a step forward, still does not go far enough in the eyes of the ACLU.
Historically, restoring the voting rights of felons has been a controversial topic in Iowa politics, with each of the state’s past three governor’s bringing something different to the table.
In July 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, issued an executive order that restored voting rights to Iowans who completed sentences for felony convictions and provided for ongoing restoration of voting rights 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, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Vilsack’s order was rescinded in 2011, despite the opposition of several voting rights organizations, when Terry Branstad, a Republican, took office, again imposing Iowa’s pre-2005 law of permanent disenfranchisement for those with felony convictions.
The current governor, Reynolds, a Republican, has ruled out signing an executive order, instead seeking to amend the state’s Constitution to remove the blanket ban. Amending the Constitution, she said, would provide a permanent solution whereas executive orders can be repealed, as history has shown.
The proposal failed in the Iowa Legislature in 2019, and the process of amending the state Constitution takes years.
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Fowler said the ACLU has challenged Iowa’s felon prohibition over the years in court. But the law has held firm.
“We’re advocating for the best permanent fix, which is the constitutional amendment,” Fowler said. “We certainly wouldn’t object to Gov. Reynolds signing an executive order in the meantime. But, ultimately, we want to see a permanent fix.”
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