On Monday Governor Terry Branstad defended his policy that has kept tens of thousands of Iowans from exercising what he calls the "privilege" of voting.
His excuses don't change the reality that he has turned a fundamental constitutional right into a "pay to play" situation for Iowans convicted of felonies.
On his first day back in office in 2011, Branstad issued an executive order changing what had been an automatic process for restoring voting rights to most Iowans convicted of felonies. In a recent 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld current state policy defining all felony offenses as "infamous crimes." So Iowa felons permanently lose the right to vote or run for office unless they can apply successfully for the governor to restore those rights.
Erin Murphy reported on the July 11 press conference:
Branstad called voting “a privilege,” and said that privilege must balance a person’s rights and responsibilities.
“Restoring voting rights to Iowans who have committed felonies is something that I take very seriously as governor,” Branstad said. “To automatically restore the right to vote without requiring the completion of the responsibilities associated with the criminal conviction would severely damage the balance of rights and responsibilities that we all have as citizens.”
Critics of the rule say it places undue stress on a person who has paid his or her debt to society, and requiring convicted felons to pay all court costs before having voting rights restored unfairly punishes low-income residents.
Branstad said the application is simple and does not require a lawyer, and paying court costs is a part of the punishment that must be completed.
The right to vote is a fundamental political right. It is essential to representative government. Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17-18, 84 S. Ct. 526, 535, 11 L. Ed. 2d 481, 492 (1964) (“No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live.”). Any alleged infringement of the right to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.
Here's conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts in a major campaign finance reform case: "There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders."
As Bleeding Heartland discussed here and here, the voting rights restoration process cannot be called "simple" when less than two-tenths of 1 percent of people affected by Branstad's policy have navigated it successfully. Even if the governor's staff started receiving and processing applications much more quickly, only a tiny fraction of disenfranchised Iowans would regain the right to vote.
Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Iowans convicted of felonies will never be in a financial position to apply to get their voting rights back, because of unpaid court costs, attorney's fees, or restitution.
In an excellent column for the Des Moines Register, Kathie Obradovich quoted Branstad as saying, "We have a huge problem in this state: $699 million of unpaid court costs in this state. That’s almost one-tenth of our state budget."
How much of that total is owed by Iowans convicted of felonies, and how much by people whose court costs are related to civil offenses or misdemeanors, which do not lead to loss of voting rights?
I've been waiting for more than two months for the governor's office to respond to questions such as: how many Iowans owe fines or court costs related to non-felony cases? Why not create a process that automatically restores voting rights to felons who were never assessed restitution payments?
Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe, who is also a criminal defense attorney, argued last week,
I am confident that community standards have evolved over the past twenty years to the extent that the average Iowan no longer believes that every felony offense is so “infamous” as to justify a lifetime ban on voting. For example, possessing 1.5 ounces of marijuana without a tax stamp is a Class D felony, as is trespassing on property owned by a public utility, as is stealing a bicycle that costs more than $1,000 to replace; this illegal conduct is certainly not admirable, but I doubt the majority of Iowans would agree that a conviction for any of these crimes merits the permanent loss of a fundamental civil right.
Iowa’s criminal sentencing laws already appear to reflect a general consensus on the part of Iowa’s lawmakers (the elected representatives of Iowa’s citizens) that not all felonies rise to the level of infamy. Most non-violent felony offenses do not require a mandatory period of incarceration upon conviction, and many first time offenders convicted of non-violent felonies never spend a day in prison; they are allowed to live, work, pay taxes and raise families in our communities, as are felons serving a period of parole and felons who have discharged their sentences. It makes no sense and serves no purpose to deny these Iowans the right to participate in choosing the elected officials who will represent them at the local, state and federal level; felons who aren’t considered dangerous enough to require incarceration can pose little if any danger to the integrity of the ballot box.
Branstad has talked a good game on criminal justice reform and taking the NAACP's perspective seriously. Yet his voting rights policy extends and reinforces racial disparities that have been a longstanding problem in Iowa's criminal justice system. For a thorough exploration of how the felon voting ban disproportionately affects African-Americans, read the amicus curiae briefs filed by the NAACP and the League of Women Voters in the Griffin case.
Under Branstad's policy, if two Iowans commit the same crime and complete the same amount of time in prison or on probation, the one who is financially secure will probably be allowed to vote again after completing this application. The one who is struggling to get by will be excluded from voting for life.
We don't take voting rights away from people because of unpaid bills, and we shouldn't refuse to restore voting rights because of unpaid bills.