Iowa could set a record for voter participation in this election, but tens of thousands of Iowans with recently reinstated rights have not yet signed up to cast ballots.
Until recently, Iowa was the only state that automatically and permanently revoked voting rights from people convicted of felonies. That changed in August, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order to automatically restore voting rights for most felons.
About 35,000 felons were affected by the order, but as of mid-October, only about 2,500 of them had registered to vote, or less than 10 percent of newly eligible voters.
You can blame the slow uptake on the coronavirus pandemic and Reynolds’ reluctance to act more quickly.
In her 2019 Condition of the State address, her first after winning election as governor, Reynolds said she would pursue a constitutional amendment to permanently restore felon voting rights. When her GOP allies in the Legislature failed to act, Reynolds initially declined to reinstate a Vilsack-era order to unilaterally restore voting rights under her authority as governor.
Through last year’s local elections and this year’s Iowa caucuses and June primaries, Reynolds let the issue fester. Finally, at the demand of Black Lives Matter protesters, Reynolds signed the order. It was the better part of two years after she first endorsed the policy, and just two months before early voting started for the 2020 general election.
In normal times, without the burden of an infectious disease pandemic, we are confident Iowa’s impressive network of voter engagement organizations would have made more progress toward registering newly enfranchised Iowans. However, voter contact operations — especially left-of-center ones, which tend to be more interested in felon voting rights — have been significantly curtailed by the threat of COVID-19.
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Even with their rights automatically restored, some felons may face more barriers to voting than other Iowans, such as low literacy or not having a consistent home address. Many have never voted before, and could be intimidated by Iowa’s changing election law landscape.
Any eligible voter, including felons who have completed their sentences, can register to vote at their regular precinct polling place on Election Day, with a photo identification card and proof of residence (such as a paycheck or utility bill).
However, even with the option to register at the polls, it’s unlikely a significant portion of Iowa felons will be able to cast ballots this year. Next year, state officials should take concerted steps to boost voter registration among the newly empowered voter bloc. They would be wise to engage with the advocacy groups already doing this kind of work, and also to include voting information in existing re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people.
Republicans, who have controlled state government the past four years, have been reluctant to adopt policies that would expand the pool of voters or make it easier to vote. It’s a cynical and anti-democratic political calculus, but it’s also incorrect.
The early voter registration figures include an important detail — the largest share of newly registered felons are no-party voters, and Democrats outnumber Republicans, but only barely. It’s a strong counterpoint to the conservative inclination that felon voting helps Democrats.
Reformed felons should be encouraged to vote because they are taxpayers and citizens and their voices matter. Given that the new registrations don’t tilt in favor of either party, Republicans don’t even have a bad reason to keep standing in the way of change.
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