NAACP leaders talk voting rights, race disparity with Branstad

Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged Governor Terry Branstad yesterday to change Iowa's extreme restrictions on voting rights for ex-felons and to address the huge race disparity in Iowa incarceration rates.

Since Branstad published an executive order disenfranchising ex-felons on his first day back in office in 2011, only a handful of Iowans have regained their right to vote after completing prison sentences. Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson reported yesterday,

About 13,000 Iowans who would have been eligible to vote four years ago were barred from voting in this year's election. Iowa is one of only four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons who've done their time.

Most people who have been imprisoned have pressing concerns like securing a job and a place to live. They are unlikely to have the resources to fill out Iowa's lengthy and complicated application to get back their voting rights. One man couldn't navigate the process even after paying an attorney $500 to help. The Iowa Justice Reform Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa have been trying to address this issue, but the NAACP delegation was able to get a meeting with the governor and some attention from journalists.

The Iowa and national NAACP leaders appealed to Branstad's sense of fairness and justice.

"Prison is supposed to be about rehabilitating people," says Dedric Doolin, president of the Cedar Rapids branch of the NAACP, "and how do you rehabilitate somebody if you continue to have them marked as a prisoner for the rest of their life?" [...]

"The litany of things that (Branstad) has on his list covers so many areas that it's near impossible for the average citizen, whether they're in prison or not, to respond to the issues that they're asking for in the application," says Arnold Woods, Jr. of Des Moines, president of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the NAACP.

But Woods says Branstad indicated one change in the process - that a felon need only be current in paying restitution rather than requiring them to pay it all before they can apply to get their voting rights back.

Announcing the new policy in January 2011, Branstad clearly stated that ex-felons must pay full court costs and restitution (if their felony crime involved a victim) before voting rights can be restored. Yesterday the governor's staff airbrushed that history:

The governor's office, meanwhile said in a statement Monday afternoon that its position has always been that voting rights could be restored if felons were current on their restitution payments.

There have been no applications submitted by felons who were merely current on such payments since the governor signed the executive order, however.

Gee, I wonder why there have been "no applications submitted by felons who were merely current on such payments." Maybe it's because it says near the beginning of Iowa's 31-question "Streamlined Application for Restoration of Citizenship Rights":

You must pay all court fines, restitution, and court costs before you apply. You must include documentation verifying payment of costs, fines, and restitution.

Branstad defended his policy as protecting "society."

The governor told the group he is willing to look at being fair to felons by streamlining the process, although he didn't pledge any specifics. Branstad does believe he had to think of others, too. He said, 'We also think it's fair to society that when somebody commits a crime like that, that they have to earn their rights by having completed the sentence and the requirements of the sentence."

It hardly seems fair to block more than 99 percent of Iowa felons from voting for the rest of their lives. The U.S. banned poll taxes decades ago, because basic civil rights should not be contingent on one's financial means. During the last 15 years, 23 states have expanded voter eligibility for felons.

Branstad's policy disproportionately affects African-Americans, who are much more likely than Caucasians to be charged with felonies and sent to prison:  

On prison disparities, the governor encouraged the group to work with the attorney general and county attorneys, who are responsible for charging people accused of crimes and bringing cases to trial.

In its press conference the NAACP, noted that one in 13 black Iowans are incarcerated, compared to one in 110 Caucasians - placing the among the highest in the country when it comes to the percentage of black residents in prison.

"We're first in the nation in the percentage of incarcerated African Americans," Woods said. "We think that is an issue that needs to be dealt with. The NAACP is anxious to get resolution to this issue."

A 2007 study by the Sentencing Project showed that "blacks in Iowa are imprisoned at 13.6 times the white rate in Iowa, the widest disparity in the nation." Former Governor Chet Culver's administration should have done more to address this problem. By urging the NAACP to take their complaints to county attorneys and Attorney General Tom Miller, Branstad signaled yesterday that he does not plan to lead on the issue.

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