Who Can Vote?

(Thanks to IowaVoter for covering this important issue. Click here for background on Governor Terry Branstad's executive order rescinding former Governor Tom Vilsack's 2005 order creating an automatic process for restoring ex-felons' voting rights. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Iowa's voting laws made news last week when the Des Moines Register reminded us of who cannot vote here. Iowa has become one of the most difficult places to vote for felons.

It's not clear to me why everyone who is 18 years old cannot vote, criminal record, even presence in jail notwithstanding. Is this a democracy or not?

Now the Iowa Justice Reform Coalition is asking for your help. They are soliciting letters to the editor on the subject of felon disenfranchisement. Since Iowa's last step forward on this front happened on July 4,2005, now is a good time for those letters:

Iowa’s Horrible Turnaround on Ex-felon Voting Rights

We became complacent. During the years prior to Terry Branstad’s move back into the Iowa Governor’s Office, we should have been making permanent changes to Iowa’s law on the restoration of ex-felon voting rights. We didn’t. 

When Governor Tom Vilsack issued Executive Order No. 42 on July 4, 2005, ex-offenders in Iowa were given the right to vote and hold office, providing they had completed their court-imposed sentences. Governor Chet Culver continued the process. Then, overnight, Governor Terry Edward Branstad turned the process over completely. 

A recent Associated Press article reports that Governor “Branstad has made Iowa one of the most difficult states in the nation for felons to vote, with an executive order he issued last year already having disenfranchised thousands of people.” http://www.desmoinesregister.com/viewart/20120624/NEWS/306240062/Few-Iowa-felons-pursue-voting-rights

A University of Pennsylvania white paper matches “discharge records to the Iowa voter file,” and found that “ex-felon turnout substantially increased following Executive Order 42.” One figure estimates this increase to be as much as “four to eight percentage points.” http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~marcmere/workingpapers/IowaFelons.pdf

So if ex-offenders are turning out to vote in substantial numbers, why is Governor Branstad making it more difficult for them to vote? Didn’t he and a tsunami of Republicans take office with the help of those votes from ex-offenders? There is no scientific connection, but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it.
The 7th anniversary of Governor Vilsack’s executive order is this upcoming Independence Day, July 4 (Wednesday). We’re asking you to write a letter-to-the editor of your local newspaper and describe the problems you see with disenfranchisement of ex-felons.

It always helps to see where a pattern exists. Recent calls to stop student voting in some states, to end same-day voter registration in some states, to demand photo ID cards in some states, and to repeal parts of the federal Voting Rights Act are all part of this pattern of disenfranchisement. Eternal vigilance is the price of voting rights. If you have a story to tell about disenfranchisement, find a way to tell it now.

If you need to address this matter for a particular disenfranchised voter, you can start with this ACLU flier on the nuts and bolts and paperwork required.

  • last week's AP story by Ryan Foley

    was eye-opening. Of approximately 8,000 felons who have completed prison terms or probation since Branstad signed his executive order the day of his inauguration, Foley reported that fewer than a dozen have gotten their voting rights back.

    Henry Straight, who wants to serve on the town council in the tiny western Iowa community of Arthur, is among those whose paperwork wasn't complete. Straight can't vote or hold office because as a teenager in Wisconsin in the 1980s, he was convicted of stealing a pop machine and fleeing while on bond.

    Straight spent a year on the effort and hired a lawyer for $500 to help. Yet he was notified by the Governor's Office last month that he hadn't submitted a full credit report, only a summary, or documentation showing that he had paid off decades-old court costs.

    "They make the process just about impossible," said Straight, 40, a truck driver. "I hired a lawyer to navigate it for me and I still got rejected. Isn't that amazing?"

    Iowa's process also includes a 31-question application that asks for information such as the address of the judge who handled the conviction. Felons also must supply a criminal history report, which takes weeks and costs $15. Then the review can take up to six months.

    Voting is a fundamental civil right. It should not be permanently revoked for, say, stealing a pop machine as a teenager 25 years ago.

    I saw over the weekend that Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz marched in a parade with a banner encouraging people to vote as an expression of patriotic duty. Yet as a newly-elected state official in January 2011, Schultz encouraged the governor to force offenders to apply before having their voting rights restored. In an open letter to Branstad, Schultz said doing so would "send a message to Iowa's voters that their voting privilege is sacred." I wonder whether he had in mind a process that allowed only one-tenth of one percent of ex-felons to get their voting rights back.

  • also worth noting

    that the governor has full confidence in Jeff Lamberti, his appointee to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission who just pleaded guilty to drunk driving. If someone like Lamberti can continue to serve on an important state commission, and two-time drunk driver Kim Reynolds is trustworthy enough to be next in line for the governor's job, why shouldn't felons who have completed their terms at least regain the right to vote?

  • agree in part

    with retiring Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Gene Fraise:

    "It's just unbelievable," Fraise says.

    Iowa is one of only four states which require felons who've done their time and been released from state supervision to make a formal appeal to the governor to get their voting rights restored. Fraise says in the past year and a half, only a handful of the thousands of Iowans who've exited the criminal justice system have successfully negotiated the complicated [process] Branstad now requires.

    "I don't know where this guy's coming from," Fraise says of Branstad, "but he's coming off the wall on a lot of this stuff."

    It's obvious where the governor is coming from. Creating a lengthy and difficult process for getting your voting rights back reduces the number of eligible voters by thousands every election cycle.

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