Thoughts on Branstad's voting rights executive order

On his first day back in office, Governor Terry Branstad rescinded Governor Tom Vilsack’s 2005 executive order on felon voting rights as well as Governor Chet Culver’s 2010 order on project labor agreements. By prohibiting project labor agreements on public works projects involving state funds (executive order 69), Branstad will drive down wages and help contractors that don’t hire unionized workers.

Branstad defended his voting rights directive (executive order 70) as a way to protect crime victims while recouping more fines and court costs. However, the main impact will be to shrink the Iowa electorate. Follow me after the jump for more background and analysis.  

Some Iowa media (perhaps taking their cue from Branstad’s spokesman Tim Albrecht) have mischaracterized Vilsack’s executive order. For instance, Radio Iowa reported that the 2005 order “automatically restored the voting rights to felons who had completed their time in prison.” Not quite: Vilsack created an automatic process for handling this matter. Here’s point II from Vilsack’s executive order 42:

From this date forward, offenders that wholly discharge their criminal sentence, including any accompanying term of probation, parole, or supervised release, will be given consideration for a restoration of citizenship rights without undue delay. Beginning August 1, 2005, the Director of the Department of Corrections shall submit monthly a record of offenders meeting this criterion to the Governor’s Office. The list of eligible offenders, along with any recommendations made pursuant to Iowa Code section 907.9(4), will be reviewed forthwith to determine whether restoration of citizenship rights is warranted.

In other words, the governor had the power to refuse to give someone’s voting rights back. Vilsack and Governor Chet Culver rarely exercised that discretion, and approximately 100,000 Iowans have had their voting rights restored since the process could begin without a formal application from the felon. The preamble to Vilsack’s executive order notes that Iowa was one of only five states lacking an automatic process for restoring voting rights to felons:

WHEREAS, the right to vote is the foundation of a representative government; and

WHEREAS, under the Constitution of the State of Iowa, an individual convicted of a felony or aggravated misdemeanor is denied the right to vote, a disability which may continue long after a sentence has been fully served; and

WHEREAS, tens of thousands of Iowans who are living, working, and paying taxes in the state are denied the right to vote as a result of a prior conviction; and

WHEREAS, disenfranchisement of offenders has a disproportionate racial impact thereby diminishing the representation of minority populations; and

WHEREAS, research indicates ex-offenders that vote are less likely to re-offend; and

WHEREAS, restoration of the right to vote is an important aspect of reintegrating offenders in society to become law-abiding and productive citizens; and

WHEREAS, Iowa is one of only five state that does not currently provide an automatic process for restoring voting rights for offenders upon discharge of their sentences; and

WHEREAS, the current means by which offenders seek to have their rights restored is unnecessarily time consuming and not used by all offenders that are eligible; and

WHEREAS, Article IV, section 16 of the Constitution of the State of Iowa authorizes the Governor of Iowa to restore the rights of citizenship that were forfeited by reason of conviction.

Branstad’s official website noted that the voting rights order “was a major priority of Secretary of State Matt Schultz.” Last week Schultz issued an open letter to Branstad on this subject:

“As Iowa’s chief election officer, I see significant benefit in reinstating the requirement that offenders make application to have their right to vote restored,” said Secretary Schultz. “Before an individual convicted of a crime in the state of Iowa should be considered to have their right to vote restored, they should make application and have completed their obligations to Iowa and the victims of the crime.”

Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Schultz said he wasn’t against giving rehabilitated felons their voting rights; he just wanted Iowa to repeal “fast track.” Clearly our new Republican secretary of state knows that convicted felons in Iowa disproportionately come from racial and socio-economic groups that tilt toward Democrats. After completing a prison sentence, people presumably have more pressing concerns (such as finding a job and a place to live) than reclaiming the right to vote. Putting the onus on the felon to make the initial application will leave many people out of the system.

Branstad has echoed Schultz’s talking points:

Branstad says if someone commits a felony, they need to pay back their debt to society.

“That means not only serving the time, but paying the fine, the court costs and the restitution to the victim,” Branstad said. He says crime victims are left out when a criminal gets their voting rights back without paying the restitution.

He says victims are too often the forgotten people in the criminal justice system, and he says when the judge orders fines and restitution it is “critically important” that people recognize they have the responsibility to pay them.

Branstad says requiring the payment before citizenship is restored is an incentive for people to follow through.  Branstad says many people who commit crimes will unfortunately not pay fines or restitution if you don’t enforce the rule requiring them to pay before they can vote again.

Branstad surely knows that requiring payment of all fines, court fees and restitution will disenfranchise many would-be voters, as this Des Moines Register editorial pointed out:

Branstad says those obligations should be paid before having voting rights restored.

That might seem reasonable, but in fact it would mean that many offenders who complete their sentences each year will forfeit their voting rights for years, possibly forever. Those are individuals for whom it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pay all obligations owed the state. It is challenge enough for a person with a criminal record to find gainful employment to survive, let alone to pay off what could amount to thousands of dollars in fines, fees and restitution payments.

Under Branstad’s approach, convicts who have jobs and other financial resources might have their voting rights restored immediately. Those without the ability to pay would not. Thus, the right to vote could hinge on one’s financial status, which is akin to an unconstitutional poll tax, according to some advocates of full voting-rights restoration.

This financial penalty would fall most heavily on low-income African-Americans in Iowa. Prior to Vilsack’s order, it was estimated that because of Iowa’s disproportionate rate of conviction and imprisonment of blacks, voting rights were permanently revoked for nearly 34 percent of all African-American Iowans. Iowa moved in the right direction by restoring voting rights for those Iowans, and it should not go back to blocking a large percentage of African-American Iowans from fully participating in the democratic process.

Final note: by shrinking the potential pool of Iowa voters, Branstad defied the national trend on voting rights:

Since 1997, 23 states have amended their practices to expand voter eligibility for felons, according to an October report from the Washington, D.C.,-based Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that works to restore rights for felons.

During that time, nine states repealed or reduced their lifetime voting bans for felons, and eight, including Iowa, made it easier for felons to appeal to have their voting rights restored, according to the group.

Groups have petitioned Branstad to reconsider nullifying the order. A letter from the American Civil Liberties Union and 27 other supporters of Vilsack’s order wrote Branstad last week urging him to let the order stand. They argued in part that felons returning to society often lack enough money to pay restitution.

“Making the right to vote contingent on payment of court-imposed fees, fines and restitution is contrary to the fundamental principles of our democracy,” the letter states.

Nicole Porter, state advocacy coordinator for the Sentencing Project, said Iowa would take a step toward Kentucky and Virginia, the only two states that still bar felons from petitioning to have their voting rights restored.

“Iowa is standing out in terms of being more regressive,” Porter said. “We certainly hope the governor’s office takes a hard look at the policy and the fact that his moving Iowa back is counter to what other states are doing.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Stephanie Fawkes-Lee and Marty Ryan make some excellent points in this Des Moines Register guest editorial:

Gov. Branstad made a decision based on information from the previous century. When he was the governor in the 1980s and early ’90s, it was possible for an ex-felon to complete the requirements of paying all restitution, fines and fees prior to seeking restoration of rights.

Today, a goal of being relieved of a financial obligation to the state is an unobtainable dream for most ex-felons, especially for minorities living in poverty, a voting bloc desperately needing more political participation.

Since the mid-1990s, several additional financial burdens have been added to an ex-offender’s list of paybacks.

In addition to fines, penalties, and court costs, surcharges have been increased and added. There are crime victim compensation programs, public agency restitution, correctional fees claimed by a sheriff or municipality (in some cases as high as $65 a day), and court-appointed attorney fees, including the expenses for public defenders. (Although “you have the right to an attorney if you can’t afford one,” that doesn’t mean you receive free legal defense; you have to reimburse the state for the costs of your court-appointed attorney).

On top of this, most ex-offenders have to pay a $300 probation fee and charges for electronic monitoring, etc. right off the top before ever getting to the restitution plan. […]

There is no way the average ex-felon today can achieve a meaningful goal of repaying the state. Therefore, there is no meaningful goal of ever participating in the election process and proving that a person can change and be responsible. It is discouraging to know that those who believe denying voting rights to ex-felons (most of them poor) support a healthy democracy. It is a sad time in Iowa history.

About the Author(s)


  • The role of the Secretary of State

    as Michael and I pointed out at the Iowa Public Television debate, should not be to try to make law or change existing law, but to oversee the election and business filings in the state.  I am also amazed that Matt wants to bring economic development into the Secretary of State’s office which would be an obvious conflict of interest.