Guest Columnist

An open letter to the governor on felon voting rights

I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Dear Gov. Kim Reynolds.

We appreciate your interest to review action that would restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. Your action would move Iowa into a new category of innovation and change how our state is perceived — moving it from the bottom (with Kentucky) to the top. Your action to recognize that all people have value creates an opportunity to re-engage returning citizens while creating your own legacy of humanity.

Responsibility is a learned trait, one that is achieved by most at an early age. People who engage in criminal behavior haven’t learned lessons of responsibility and the result is a loss of rights — the right of freedom, liberty and an opportunity to pursue happiness, which also means the opportunity to VOTE in every election. The ability to earn back voting rights via a direct appeal to the governor is a long and arduous process and one that is not easy to accomplish. Restitution, paying fines and debt, is astronomical compared to prison wages — just 64 cents an hour. It’s just as hard for those living on the outside. While their wages may go up there’s the added cost of living to factor in.

Representatives of the organization Inside Out point out restoring citizenship with a right to vote is a step to re-engage individuals in responsible behavior. Iowa Medical Classification Center Warden Jim McKinney says when inmates at his facility earn opportunities for privileges, they often engage and maintain good behaviors because they don’t want to lose opportunities.

The cost of housing prisoners in Iowa is extraordinarily ($92.18 a day/$33,648 annually in fiscal year ending June 2013). Iowa must rethink its punishment to include engaging responsibility.

Governor, you well know Iowa is facing a worker shortage. Your own Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) Director Beth Townsend suggested released prisoners represent a future workforce. Ms. Townsend was a speaker at the 2018 Iowa Ideas conference. Iowa prisons take in and release approximately 5,000 people each year. On average, the State of Iowa has about 30,000 people serving some type of parole, work release or probation. About 97 percent of those incarcerated will return to society at some point. With appropriate training, they could help fill our worker shortage gap.

We appreciate Iowa’s efforts to create a partnership between IWD and the Iowa Department of Corrections to create the Ex-Offender Initiative via IowaWORKS. The program offers assistance to those released who are eager to get a job and lead a productive life. A job and restoration of voting rights can help parolees establish a new life and become productive citizens. Voting and a job can help integrate them into society to become responsible taxpayers instead of tax burdens.

Governor Reynolds, Iowa Nice does not mean permanently removing citizenship rights when an inmate is released and living on the outside. The state of Maine, for example, does not eliminate voting rights for incarcerated people. You can help returning citizens achieve dignity and responsibility by granting voting rights now by executive order and working with the Iowa Legislature in January to pass legislation to make your actions the law.

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• Syndy Conger and Cathy Eisenhofer are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.

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