Guest Columnist

Tying voting rights to debt is a bad idea

Voters from Wards 1-4 in Mt. Pleasant visited their polling place at the Veterans Hall to cast their ballot on Nov. 5. (
Voters from Wards 1-4 in Mt. Pleasant visited their polling place at the Veterans Hall to cast their ballot on Nov. 5. (Union photo by Ashley Duong)

As a former police officer, military officer, and federal prosecutor, I support a constitutional amendment to restore voting eligibility to Iowans with past convictions. I urge Iowa’s Senate to pass the restoration bill this session so that Iowa can take the first step toward a freer, more inclusive democracy—a republic more in line with our Founders ideals.

Iowa is the only state in the nation that permanently and categorically bans those with past convictions from voting. As of 2016, nearly 24,000 Iowans who had completed their sentences were barred from being full and active citizens. But, with the support of Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s lawmakers are considering legislation to amend the state’s constitution and end Iowa’s membership in this infamous club of one.

Iowa is first-in-the-nation for voter disenfranchisement

Denying eligibility to people with past convictions serves no legitimate public safety purpose. Rather, studies have shown that civic engagement reduces the risk of re-offending, re-arrest, and return to prison. People who are part of the fabric of the community—who have a say and a stake in outcomes—are invested in the success of their neighborhoods, their counties, and their state. Indeed, there is no greater expression of both liberty and solidarity with one’s fellow citizens than to stand in a voting booth and make a choice to improve one’s own life and the lives of one’s neighbors.

Restoring eligibility would help foster a criminal justice system that gives people the opportunity to redeem themselves. Preventing someone from voting does nothing to keep anyone safe. In every other state in the nation, individuals with past convictions can vote; and in each of those jurisdictions, the sky did not fall, crime did not rise, and democratic bodies were not overtaken by “criminal record” voters—the Republic endures, indeed, the Republic is stronger for it.

The tens of thousands of Iowans who have completed their sentences are working, paying taxes, and raising families. They should have a voice in our democracy.

But, even as state lawmakers contemplate legislation to amend Iowa’s constitution and restore voting eligibility, they are simultaneously considering a proposal that would undermine this historic step.

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Unfortunately, the Iowa Senate is now advancing a counterproductive bill that would require individuals with past convictions to pay off any restitution they owe before they can become eligible to vote.

Tying voting rights to an ability to pay is a bad idea.

First, restoring voting eligibility does not wipe away an individual’s duty to pay off restitution or other court debts – those obligations must be met just the same. And, as the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone. Many people simply cannot afford to pay off their different legal obligations. Indeed, those who are caught up in the criminal justice system are often the least able to pay. One study, using nationally representative data, found that about 36 percent of people arrested once in 2017, and 49 percent of people arrested multiple times, had individual incomes below $10,000 per year, well below the poverty level of $12,060. Conditioning eligibility to vote on the repayment of restitution or other debts will not make it any more likely that these amounts get paid. Instead, for some, a requirement to repay such debts will amount to lifetime disenfranchisement by another name. Eligibility to vote is no more related to a person’s ability to pay off a court debt than it is their ability to pay off student loan or credit card debt. But no one would seriously contend that those of us with high student loan debt shouldn’t be able to vote until it’s all paid off – that would be one step backward toward archaic debtors’ prisons.

Second, making voting eligibility contingent on the repayment of legal debts will create two classes of people with past criminal convictions – those who can afford to pay (and therefore vote) and those who cannot. This kind of wealth discrimination is anathema to fundamental American principles of fairness and equality, not to mention a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, conditioning eligibility to vote on the repayment of court debts will undermine election administration in Iowa. The state’s records relating to the underlying felony convictions are notoriously unreliable. Records relating to outstanding restitution are likely in even worse shape. Uncertainty about who has paid what will only create confusion about who is eligible to vote. This will make it harder for county auditors to do their jobs, and more difficult for those with past convictions to know whether it’s safe for them to register and vote.

This year, Iowa can take the first step to extend a second chance to those with past convictions. Iowa’s Senate should pass the resolution to amend the state constitution and reject the effort to condition voting on the repayment of court debts. I urge lawmakers not to cut off access to the vote – the cornerstone of American democracy – for those who are too poor to pay.

Arthur Rizer is the director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank.

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