Was "streamlined" voting rights process designed for felons or Iowa Supreme Court justices?

Last week, Governor Terry Branstad’s office rolled out a new "streamlined application form for those seeking a restoration of their voting rights," so that "Iowa’s already simple voting rights restoration process will become even more efficient and convenient."

"Simple," "efficient," and "convenient" wouldn’t be my choice of words to describe a process used successfully by less than two-tenths of 1 percent of affected Iowans since Branstad ended the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons five years ago. The governor’s first stab at simplifying the system in December 2012 did not significantly increase the number of Iowans applying to get their rights back. Three years after that change, fewer than 100 individuals out of roughly 57,000 who had completed felony sentences since January 2011 had regained the right to vote.

The new double-plus-streamlined process seems unlikely to produce a large wave of enfranchised Iowans, because it leaves intact major barriers.

The latest announcement looks like an attempt to convince Iowa Supreme Court justices that they need not intervene to give tens of thousands of felons any realistic hope of exercising a fundamental constitutional right again.

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Weekend open thread: Exposing abuse edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

The Pulitzer Prizes announced this week recognized some powerful reporting on the misuse of power. The Associated Press won the public service award for "an investigation of severe labor abuses tied to the supply of seafood to American supermarkets and restaurants, reporting that freed 2,000 slaves, brought perpetrators to justice and inspired reforms." Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza, and Esther Htusan contributed to this incredible investigative work; the whole series is available here.

The Washington Post won the Pulitzer’s national reporting category for its "revelatory initiative in creating and using a national database to illustrate how often and why the police shoot to kill and who the victims are most likely to be." The database is available here; reporters who contributed to this work include Kimberly Kindy, Wesley Lowery, Keith L. Alexander, Kimbriell Kelly, Sandhya Somashekhar, Julie Tate, Amy Brittain, Marc Fisher, Scott Higham, Derek Hawkins, and Jennifer Jenkins. In one of the articles for this series, Kindy and Tate explored the common practice of police departments withholding video footage of fatal shootings, using the January 2015 death of Autumn Steele in Burlington, Iowa as the touchpoint.

The Pulitzer for explanatory reporting went to T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project "for a startling examination and exposé of law enforcement’s enduring failures to investigate reports of rape properly and to comprehend the traumatic effects on its victims." An Unbelievable Story of Rape was a stunning and depressing piece.

Speaking of stunning and depressing, previously unreported abuses of teenagers at the now-closed Midwest Academy boarding school came to light earlier this year. Several former students spoke to Ryan Foley of the Associated Press about being kept in isolation boxes for days or weeks at a time. (Isolation is particularly harmful to developing adolescent brains.) The Des Moines Register’s Lee Rood reported on approximately 80 law enforcement calls to the facility in Keokuk during the last three years the school was open. Abusive practices by staff went back more than a decade, though.

No state agency had ever inspected the Midwest Academy, prompting calls for the Iowa legislature to prevent future problems at unregulated schools. The Iowa Senate unanimously approved a bill setting out certification and inspection standards for boarding schools. House Republicans amended Senate File 2304 before approving it in the lower chamber, making "some exemptions for religious facilities." The Senate refused to concur in the House amendment, and on a mostly party-line vote, the House rejected the Senate version. The school oversight bill now goes to a conference committee. I hope lawmakers will work out a deal before adjourning, but this legislation is not a must-pass bill like the health and human services budget (currently hung up over disagreements on Medicaid oversight and Planned Parenthood funding).

Alleged verbal abuse by Iowa State University women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly was among the actions that inspired a discrimination lawsuit by former star player Nikki Moody. The AP’s Luke Meredith and Ryan Foley broke news about that lawsuit on April 18. After the jump I’ve enclosed excerpts from their report and some reaction, but I highly recommend reading the plaintiff’s jaw-dropping twelve-page court filing. Looking through some Cyclone fan board threads about the lawsuit, I was struck by two contradictory lines of argument from the coach’s defenders: Moody is lying, because this or that former player says Fen was always supportive and would never behave that way; or alternatively, Moody is lying, because Fen is tough on all his players, not just the black ones. Cheyenne Shepherd, an unheralded player for ISU during the 1990s, provided strong support for Moody in a guest column for the Des Moines Register about her experience as one of Fennelly’s "non-favorites." Retired ISU journalism professor Dick Haws discussed the "not-very-well-hidden secret" of how Fennelly berates and humiliates some of his players. Gavin Aronsen asked at Iowa Informer whether the lawsuit is "A Symptom of Broader Diversity Problems at ISU."

Since Thursday, I’ve been reading reflections on the life and work of Prince. I remembered his exceptional creativity, charisma, and talent as a songwriter (for many other artists as well as for himself), but I didn’t realize how highly regarded he was as a guitarist. His solo during this performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was mesmerizing. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top described Prince’s "sensational" guitar playing in an interview with the Washington Post: "Even today, I’m struggling to try and emulate that guitar introduction to ‘When Doves Cry.’ It’s just a testament to his extraordinary technique." The whole "Purple Rain" album brings back strong high school memories for me, especially "When Doves Cry." Prince’s biggest fan in the Iowa blogosphere was John Deeth, easily recognized at political events by his raspberry beret. Deeth reflected on what the music meant to him here.

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Why is Iowa's secretary of state playing politics with felon voting case?

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is a defendant in Kelli Jo Griffin’s lawsuit claiming Iowa violates her constitutional rights by disenfranchising all felons. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on March 30. Justices are expected to decide by the end of June whether to uphold the current system or declare that Iowa’s constitutional provision on "infamous crimes" should not apply to all felonies.

Defendants typically refrain from commenting on pending litigation, but during the past three weeks, Pate has carried out an extraordinary public effort to discredit the plaintiffs in the voting rights case. In his official capacity, he has addressed a large radio audience and authored an op-ed column run by many Iowa newspapers.

Pate amped up his attack on "the other side" in speeches at three of the four Iowa GOP district conventions on April 9. After misrepresenting the goals of Griffin’s allies and distorting how a ruling for the plaintiff could alter Iowa’s electorate, the secretary of state asked hundreds of Republican activists for their help in fighting against those consequences.

At a minimum, the secretary of state has used this lawsuit to boost his own standing. Even worse, his words could be aimed at intimidating the "unelected judges" who have yet to rule on the case. Regardless of Pate’s motives, his efforts to politicize a pending Supreme Court decision are disturbing.

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Throwback Thursday: When state lawmakers chose not to change "infamous crime" to "felony" in the Iowa Constitution

A 2008 amendment to the Iowa Constitution became a matter of debate in Griffin v Pate, the major voting rights case before the Iowa Supreme Court. The amendment changed Article II, Section 5, which as adopted in 1857 read, "No idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector." The same section now reads, "A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector."

Two of the seven Supreme Court justices have previously held that when approving the 2008 constitutional amendment, the legislature "ratified its own existing interpretation of that provision under which infamous crime meant a felony." In its brief for the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of defendants in Griffin, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office carried forward that claim: "By failing to alter the Infamous Crime Clause when other portions of Article II, section 5 were amended, the Legislature and the public ratified the definition of infamous crime as all felonies under state and federal law." During the March 30 Supreme Court hearing on Griffin v. Pate, Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson likewise argued "the simple answer here" is the 2008 constitutional amendment was "passed twice by the General Assembly, adopted by the people of Iowa, in the context of a legal system and historical cases and practices that said felonies are the line."

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the legislative intent behind the 2008 constitutional amendment. What I found does not support the view that Iowa lawmakers envisioned "infamous crime" as synonymous with "felony" or intended to ratify such an interpretation when voting to remove offensive language from the state constitution.

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Weekend open thread: Threats to public health edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

On April 1, three months later than originally planned, Iowa officially switched to a managed-care model for the Medicaid program. Erin Murphy explained here how privatization will affect almost all of our state’s roughly 560,000 Medicaid recipients.

Many Iowans on Medicaid are learning that their current health care providers are now out of network, a particular concern for those who have special medical needs. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota has not signed contracts with any of the three insurance companies selected to be managed-care providers in Iowa. KCRG’s Katie Wiedemannn reported on March 31 about a 9-year-old cancer patient whose scheduled treatment at Mayo has been delayed because of the new policy. I am aware of other families whose children on Medicaid have relied on out-of-state medical specialists to treat their children’s rare genetic or chronic conditions.

Iowa House Republican leaders have refused to act on an extensive Medicaid oversight bill that cleared the Senate with bipartisan support. However, they promise to unveil their own Medicaid oversight proposal soon. Senate Democrats will seek to add many oversight provisions to the human services budget, which is often one of the last bills to be resolved before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

One major red flag: Iowa hired only "two ombudsmen to investigate and work as advocates for the 560,000 poor or disabled people" on Medicaid. As Jason Clayworth reported for the Des Moines Register in January, a working group that studied the issue recommended hiring 134 more ombudsmen at a possible cost of $17 million annually.

Rhonda Shouse has been among the most vocal opponents of Medicaid privatization. She shared with Bleeding Heartland some resources for recipients who run into problems with their new managed-care providers. I enclose those below.

Some good public health news: state lawmakers recently approved a bill that would allow "First responders, emergency medical service providers, police, firefighters and licensed health care professionals" to maintain a supply of the drug Naloxone (also known as Narcan). The medication can prevent death after an overdose of heroin or prescription opioid pain-killers, both of which have become more prevalent in Iowa, as in many other states. Senate File 2218 passed the upper chamber the Senate unanimously and cleared the House by 93 votes to 2 (the dissenters were Republicans Stan Gustafson and Mike Sexton). Several groups representing law enforcement or medical professionals lobbied for this bill. At this writing, Governor Terry Branstad has not yet signed it.

UPDATE: Branstad signed the bill about the overdose drug on April 6.

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