All eyes have been on Iowa since the debacle of this year’s caucuses. The contrast between the whiteness of the Hawkeye State and the diversity of the Democratic Party’s voting base has been stark, and with the organizational catastrophe following the caucuses, one question has become unavoidable: Why should Iowans retain our privileged, first-in-the-nation position in voicing an opinion on our national leadership?
The state legislature is currently poised to make it 60,000 times harder to answer this question, as lawmakers consider legislation that would threaten to permanently disenfranchise tens of thousands of Iowans, thereby cementing our position as worst-in-the-nation on voting rights.
Iowa is the only state in the nation with a lifetime ban on voting for people with a felony conviction. Although individuals with felony records currently have very limited options to have their voting rights restored, the proposed Senate File 2129 bill would foreclose those opportunities by redefining what it means to have “discharged a sentence” in our state.
The legislation would make it so that people could only regain their constitutional right to vote after paying every penny of any restitution they might owe following a brush with the law. What’s more, companion bills to the legislation would make it more difficult for people to repay debts by eliminating alternatives like community service, and stripping judges of the discretion to consider people’s ability to pay when deciding what financial penalty to impose.
A competing bill, Senate File 2244, would allow some fees to be treated as civil debts, keeping people out of jail even if they owe money. But it would still harm ordinary Iowans by assuming everyone has the ability to pay and making it harder for folks to prove otherwise.
This legislation follows a Florida voter suppression model and ties the right to vote to the size of one’s bank account in a way that is fundamentally contrary to who we should be as a nation. In a country whose history chronicles the struggle of minority groups — who are universally arrested more frequently than whites — to attain both freedom and the power to shape our nation, this is a shameful step away from universal suffrage.
One glaring aspect of voter suppression is the link between debt and suffrage, which ties one’s wealth to the ability to vote in America. The trend can be seen as a kind of quiet twin to Citizens United, which let dark money pour into our politics. And because political contributions affect legislative behavior, groups pay political campaigns to create laws that benefit those groups. Alec Karakatsanis notes in his book “Usual Cruelty,” that most people would call this behavior bribery, but instead we have decided to call it free speech. Here, too, money lends a voice, but rather than giving well-funded corporate entities a new and larger avenue to power, it strips low-income, everyday people of the right to have any say at all.
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In Iowa, court debt is out of control. If you get arrested, even wrongfully, in our state, you have to pay to be jailed, pay to defend yourself in court, even pay for a public defender. It’s not uncommon to rack up five figures of debt in a single case. A 16-year-old in Polk County, for example, was held for over a year trying to prove his innocence, and ultimately walked out carrying $14,000 in pretrial fees, all before he became a legal adult. If he’s unable to pay off these fees in two years, he will be unable to participate in our democracy.
Restitution, often cast as a more sympathetic debt obligation because of its link to the offense, is often less righteous than one might believe. Rent-to-own furniture stores, for example, may use the criminal system to collect unpaid debt on a wayward couch, using jail for poor clients and bypassing the civil process that a vendor would ordinarily use for a higher-income client.
Our state, like almost all other states, rarely collects this money, and the reason for this is simple: You can’t coerce people to give what they don’t have. To put a finer point on this reality, between 80 and 90 percent of people charged with crimes in America are so poor, that they cannot afford a lawyer. What these debts do is serve to eliminate people of color and the poor from the voting population. In a state where African Americans make up 3 percent of the population but 23 percent of its prison population, tying the right to vote to our criminal legal system does little to encourage payment and more to make our voting base even less diverse. It’s hard to answer criticism that Iowa no longer represents our nation when our own policies are moving us further from the kind of inclusion that represents America’s diversity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Presidential candidates have called for universal suffrage, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) has introduced legislation known as the People’s Justice Guarantee, which would relieve poor people of the crippling burden of unpayable fines and fees, while restoring the right to vote to all citizens. Our national leaders are urging us to stop silencing our citizens through debtor’s disenfranchisement, and Nevada, Colorado, New Jersey and Louisiana have all moved toward greater enfranchisement within the last year.
In a country that once counted slaves as only three-fifths of a person, where we had to fight to free ourselves of poll taxes and other forms of financial oppression, and which still leads the world in an incarceration crisis whose roots grow straight out of that shameful legacy of slavery, the time has come to stop using the criminal legal system to erase the voices of millions of Black and Brown people from our democracy. And if Iowa wants to be first in the nation, we need to start by leading it on a path toward universal suffrage and a truer commitment to the principles of justice for all.
Stacey Walker is a Democratic elected official in Linn County.