Coalition will work to expand felon voting rights in Iowa

Iowa’s leading civil rights advocacy groups have joined forces, fighting for changes that would allow thousands of Iowans who have completed felony sentences to “be full members of society and exercise their right to vote.” The seventeen groups in the new Restore Fair Voting Rights in Iowa coalition include the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Iowa.

Their efforts are badly needed, because even after two “streamlinings” of the process Governor Terry Branstad established on his first day back in office, an embarrassingly small number of Iowans have regained the right to vote.

The ACLU challenged Iowa’s felon disenfranchisement system in the Iowa Supreme Court earlier this year. The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the League of Women Voters submitted amicus curiae briefs supporting that lawsuit. In a disappointing and surprising 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lifetime ban on voting for Iowans convicted of any felony. The majority opinion made clear that elected officials could redefine “infamous crimes” more narrowly, opening the door to changing Iowa law or the state constitution so that only the most serious crimes would cause a loss of voting rights. Most states have far less burdensome restrictions on felon voting than Iowa does.

I enclose below a full list of coalition members and their statement of purpose to change “the harshest voting laws in the country.” They note, “Nearly 1 in 10 voting-age Black people in Iowa are currently barred from voting for life. That disenfranchisement wreaks terrible injustice on the African-American community in our state.”

Governor Terry Branstad and his allies claim it’s easy for convicted felons to regain their voting rights. The new coalition correctly describes the “arduous, intimidating,” and costly requirements for those wishing to apply. Branstad issued an executive order in January 2011 to end the automatic restoration of voting rights to Iowans who had completed their felony sentences. During the first three years his order was in effect, just 40 people successfully navigated the process.

From January 2011 through December 2015, only 89 people managed to get their voting rights back–less than two-tenths of 1 percent of more than 50,000 Iowans who are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. Early this year, Branstad restored voting rights to seven more people who had submitted applications before the end of 2015.

The governor “streamlined” the voting rights restoration application (for the second time) in April, promising that “Iowa’s already simple voting rights restoration process will become even more efficient and convenient.” The shorter form did nothing to reduce the financial barriers to voting, which are tantamount to a poll tax. Many people with a criminal record have trouble finding employment and would struggle to stay on track with paying all fines, restitution and court costs associated with their felony convictions.

The governor’s staff told me today that since January 1, Iowans with felony convictions have submitted 96 applications to regain their voting rights (30 before and 66 after the latest “streamlining”). The governor has granted 89 of those applications; seven are still being processed.

So, in nearly six years since his executive order went into effect, Branstad has restored voting rights to fewer than 200 people–less than half of 1 percent of those disenfranchised.

In an excellent profile of Kelli Jo Griffin, the plaintiff in the ACLU’s voting rights case, Kenneth Rosen of the New York Times reported today that Griffin will be able to vote on November 8, having applied successfully through the governor’s office. Without the help of the ACLU, doing so would have “cost nearly $1,000 in attorney’s fees, not including the time spent culling necessary records to supplement the application, and a background check. Just getting it right is daunting for many who might still be paying restitution or monthly probation fees.”

The governor told reporters earlier this week, “Felons can earn their rights back and frankly I sign those documents everyday.”

No, Branstad doesn’t restore someone’s right to vote every day. He has signed fewer than 200 such documents in more than 2,110 days since returning to the governor’s office in 2011. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 of his constituents will never be able to cast a ballot again, due to a felony conviction. Most of them committed non-violent crimes.

Restore Fair Voting Rights In Iowa will lobby state lawmakers next year “to pass a bill that states that all nonviolent crimes do not disqualify Iowa citizens from voting and that Iowans will get their right to vote back after they complete their jail or prison sentences, including any probation or parole. Importantly, the law should make clear that the right to vote is not contingent on the payment of outstanding court costs, fines, and fees, which are financial obligations that many are unable to pay.” The coalition will also lobby for a state constitutional amendment–though that path would take years and be an even heavier lift in the Iowa House and Senate.

Steffi Lee reported for CBS-2 in Cedar Rapids yesterday,

Bonnie Pitz, past president of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, spoke about her experiences when trying to get Iowans registered to vote.

“One of the things we discovered is how many people want to register to vote, but cannot because of a felony conviction in their past,” Pitz said.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the NAACP, says felon voter disenfranchisement also hurts ongoing racial disparity issues.

“We need to tear down this wall,” she said. “Iowa has been at the top of so many disparities, that it’s really a shame that we aren’t taking radical steps to make changes for our citizens.”

Racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system are an ongoing disgrace. Branstad has made some gestures toward making sure “race does not play a role” in how Iowans are punished. Yet he has rejected the NAACP’s appeals to change his policy on felon voting.

For Branstad, exercising a fundamental constitutional right should depend on a person’s ability to pay. He’s on record stating, “When individuals commit felonies, it is important that they demonstrate that they have fully satisfied their sentences and have paid their court-imposed financial obligations and be current on restitution if it’s required before receiving their voting rights back.” Commenting on the issue this week, he objected to the idea that restoration “ought to be automatic,” “without meeting your obligations to society” including court costs. In other words, if you have plenty of disposable income, step right up, I’ll restore your right to vote. Otherwise, no elections for you.

No one from the governor’s office ever answered a question I posed months ago: why does Branstad insist on putting these strings on convicted felons, given that thousands of other Iowans are able to vote despite owing fines or fees to the state or the court system?

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

October 25 press release:

New Coalition Formed to Work for Legislation, Constitutional Amendment To Allow Iowans With Felony Convictions to Vote

Des Moines, Iowa —Iowa has the harshest voting laws in the county, automatically stripping voting rights of any Iowan convicted of a felony. Today a group of Iowa organizations announced that they are forming a coalition that will work to change that through 1) a passage of a bill and 2) an amendment to the Iowa Constitution.

Members of the growing coalition currently are:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa (ACLU of Iowa)
The Iowa-Nebraska NAACP
League of Women Voters of Iowa
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa
Iowa CURE
Iowa Coalition 4 Juvenile Justice
St. Paul AME Church, Des Moines
Women at the Well
Trinity United Methodist Church
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Immigrants Voice Program Iowa CCI Action Fund
Iowa Justice Action Network
Las Americas Comunidad de Fe
Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness/Advocacy Network
Iowa Conference United Methodist Church Legislative Advocacy Team Methodist Federation for Social Action Iowa
Iowa Catholic Conference

Currently, an Iowan convicted of a felony is automatically stripped of his or her right to vote. Only two other states, Kentucky and Florida, have equally harsh voting laws for people convicted of any felony. This despite the fact that many felonies have no impact on the suitability of an individual to vote. Felony charges include non-violent drug offenses
and a number of non-violent thefts.

It’s possible to get the right to vote back through the office of Gov. Terry Branstad, but the process is arduous, intimidating, costs money, and many feel they need to retain a lawyer to help them.

In January when the next Iowa legislative session starts, these groups will be urging legislators to pass a bill that states that all nonviolent crimes do not disqualify Iowa citizens from voting and that Iowans will get their right to vote back after they complete their jail or prison sentences, including any probation or parole. Importantly, the law should make clear that the right to vote is not contingent on the payment of outstanding court costs, fines, and fees, which are financial obligations that many are unable to pay.

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, said, “As we all head to the polls this November, it’s important to remember those who have been left behind. Voting rights are the foundation of citizenship. But more than 50,000 Iowans—a number that grows by the day—remain unable to vote, even though they have completed their sentences and have rejoined their communities.”

“That means they cannot vote for members of their child’s school board; are unable to vote on local measures, or help choose our next president. Iowa’s current system is unfair, and leads to the systemic disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black Iowans, leaving them without a voice in our political process. It’s past time that our state corrected what is arguably the largest civil rights violation under our laws by ending felony disenfranchisement for good,” Bettis said.

Nearly 1 in 10 voting-age Black people in Iowa are currently barred from voting for life. That disenfranchisement wreaks terrible injustice on the African-American community in our state. If laws don’t change, that number can be expected to increase to 1 in 4.(1)

This most recent push for changes in Iowa’s ex-felon voting law follows a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the matter. The Court considered a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of Iowa mom Kelli Griffin of Montrose, who at one point faced the possibility of prison after she voted. At the time, she had discharged a sentence for a felony-level nonviolent drug offense, and thought she could vote after completing probation. She ended up spending thousands of dollars for her legal defense and standing trial. She was acquitted by that local jury in just 45 minutes.

Then in an effort to change the laws more broadly so she and others could vote, she sued the state to clarify that under the Iowa constitution, she should never have been barred from voting. Unfortunately, in a narrow 4-3 decision, the Court denied her appeal, and upheld Iowa’s current statute that defines “infamous crime” as any offense that happens to be classified by the legislature as a felony, regardless of the nature of the offense itself.

In the decision, while the Court made clear that it and not the legislature would be the final arbiter of Iowa’s constitutional right to vote, it also indicated that the right itself was subject to potential evolution. Further, it pointed to the potential for it to look to any changes in the legislative definition in some future case in which it would have occasion to determine whether the right had evolved. Ultimately, though, because that proposition is so uncertain, a constitutional amendment is the surest and best way to end felony disenfranchisement for good in our state.

For that reason, in addition to working for passage of a bill, the coalition will also work for a Constitutional amendment to assure the right of those with felony convictions to vote. A constitutional amendment requires two successive Iowa General Assemblies to vote by simple majority to put the proposed amendment on the statewide ballot. The measure would then need to be approved by a simple majority of Iowa voters.

Bonnie Pitz, past president of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, said felony disenfranchisement laws have far-reaching consequences. One is with families. “Children do not learn citizenship only in a school setting, but by the actions and beliefs of their families. Disenfranchising those who have paid their debt to society means a whole generation of children will not see a parent fully participate in democracy and pass that value onto their children,” Pitz said.

Veterans are also disproportionately affected, Pitz said. “Many people with felonies are veterans, people who may deal with the traumas of service to our country by self-medicating with illicit drugs. It is a special tragedy when we strip the right to vote from an individual who has given so much of his or her life to defending democracy.”
(1) This represents the rate of disenfranchisement of Black people under Branstad’s policy without the benefit of 6 years of automatic restoration from 2005-2011, which currently skews the numbers downward artificially.

Top image: Graphic from the website of the Restore Votes Iowa coalition

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