Branstad restored voting rights to just 206 Iowans in more than six years

Iowa’s supposedly “efficient and convenient” process for regaining the franchise after a felony conviction resulted in Governor Terry Branstad restoring voting rights to only 206 people over nearly six and a half years.

More than 50,000 others remain unable to vote, probably for the rest of their lives.

One year ago today, four Iowa Supreme Court justices upheld our state’s felon disenfranchisement policy, among the harshest in the nation. State law defines all felony convictions as “infamous crimes,” which under the Iowa Constitution justify the permanent loss of the right to vote or hold public office. An executive order Branstad issued immediately after his 2011 inauguration ended the automatic restoration of citizenship rights after completing a felony sentence. Now, Iowans who want to vote again must submit a detailed application, with proof that they have fully paid or are regularly paying installments on restitution, court costs and fines.

Branstad and current Governor Kim Reynolds have defended the system as fair to ex-offenders and to crime victims, ignoring the fact that thousands of disenfranchised Iowans committed victimless, non-violent crimes.

Branstad has “streamlined” the voting rights restoration process twice, making the application shorter without altering the barriers that ensure the overwhelming majority of Iowans convicted of a felony will never cast another ballot. (Financial burdens including various surcharges and correctional fees can add up to thousands of dollars.)

When announcing the second streamlining in April 2016, a statement from the governor’s office promised, “Iowa’s already simple voting rights restoration process will become even more efficient and convenient.”

Yet the number of applications received by the governor’s office has barely ticked up.

Branstad restored voting rights to two people in 2011, seventeen people in 2012, and 21 people in 2013, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press in January 2014. The first “streamlining” of the application took effect in December 2012.

Another 49 Iowans regained their voting rights in either 2014 or 2015, staff for the governor informed me last year.

In other words, a total of 89 people regained their voting rights in Iowa during the first five years Branstad’s policy was in effect.

Between January 1 and October 26, 2016, Branstad restored the right to vote to 96 more Iowans, staff told me shortly before last year’s general election. Of those, seven had submitted applications in late 2015, 30 had applied before the second “streamlining” in April 2016, and the rest had applied using the latest version of the form.

After Reynolds became governor last month, her legal counsel Colin Smith told me Branstad restored voting rights to 21 more “eligible individuals who submitted completed applications” between October 26, 2016, and his final day in office. The former governor didn’t deny any such applications during that period. One person submitted an incomplete form, “and our office is working with them to help supplement their application,” Smith said.

That makes 117 Iowans who regained their voting rights during Branstad’s final seventeen months on the job.

Defending his policy last October, Branstad asserted, “Felons can earn their rights back and frankly I sign those documents everyday.”

In reality, he signed only 206 voting rights restorations over nearly six and a half years, covering less than one-half of one percent of more than 50,000 people permanently barred from voting under his 2011 executive order.

Communications staff and legal counsel for Reynolds and acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg have not responded to my repeated inquiries about whether the new administration is open to changing Iowa’s felon disenfranchisement policy. As things stand, the fundamental right to vote is contingent on an Iowa citizen’s ability to cover financial obligations. A person who is independently wealthy may be able to complete the application, while many others who committed the same crime will never be able to navigate the process.

Having served as state public defender for two and a half years, Gregg is well aware of the challenges facing indigent Iowans in the criminal justice system. With a felony conviction on their records, ex-offenders are lucky to find a job that covers basic living expenses. Most don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars lying around to cover court-appointed attorney fees or other fines, penalties, and surcharges.

Iowa’s approach is out of step with how most states handle this issue. Governor Tom Vilsack’s executive order expanding voting rights noted that as of July 2005, “Iowa is one of only five state[s] that does not currently provide an automatic process for restoring voting rights for offenders upon discharge of their sentences.”

Reynolds and her image-makers have woven the story of her second drunk driving arrest into a compelling narrative of personal triumph over adversity, alluding to the incident in her first speech as governor and talking about her quest for sobriety in interviews with prominent journalists as well as a slick campaign video released last month.

Reynolds has not publicly acknowledged that she would have lost her right to vote and to serve as Clarke County treasurer seventeen years ago, had she been convicted of a second OWI, rather than being allowed to plead to a lesser charge. At the time, aggravated misdemeanors like second-offense OWI were considered “infamous crimes.” (A 2014 Iowa Supreme Court ruling clarified that only felonies can lead to the loss of voting rights.)

Drug or alcohol addiction was a major contributing factor to the criminal activities of thousands of Iowans, as it was for Reynolds when she was caught driving drunk. Under the policy Branstad enacted with full support from Reynolds, most Iowans who committed a felony have no realistic hope of participating in our democracy again, regardless of how well they maintain sobriety.

There are only three ways to change Iowa’s felon disenfranchisement policy. Revising state law or constitutional language on “infamous crimes” are dead letters with Republicans in control of the legislature. Reynolds could make a fundamental constitutional right more accessible immediately, but more likely, we won’t see any executive order expanding voting rights without electing a new governor.

UPDATE: A conservative reader objects that this post is a “Mostly meaningless discussion without inclusion of the number of applications or better yet a poll of felons on whether they even want their voting rights back. I have a brother in this category and is not interested in restoring his voting rights.”

Staff for Branstad have touted how hard they work to help process these applications, and have noted that almost all who apply eventually regain their voting rights. But financial barriers will block this path for most ex-offenders.

As for how many want to vote again, Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza wrote a paper in 2002 on “The Political Consequences of Felon Disfranchisement Laws in the United States.”

To determine how many would have turned out to vote and which candidate they would have selected, the authors use CPS data and data from the National Election Study (NES), a rich source of information on sociodemographic details and voter attitudes. In presidential elections, the authors estimate a potential voter turnout among felons and ex-felons of roughly 31%, and 17% in Senate elections during nonpresidential election years. These turnout rates are well below those of the general population, but high enough to have had an impact when combined with the partisan alignment of these votes. The authors estimate that, on average, 70% of the disfranchised would have voted for Democratic candidates.

JULY 4 UPDATE: According to a 2012 report by Christopher Uggen, Sarah Shannon, and Jeff Manza for the Sentencing Project, 115,210 Iowans regained the right to vote from when Vilsack issued his executive order through 2010. That total included 61,426 people who completed felony sentences during the five and a half years Vilsack’s order was in effect.

By the end of 2010, an estimated 21,888 Iowans were disenfranchised because of a criminal offense: 9,455 serving time in prisons, 3,197 parolees, 8,862 on probation for a felony, and 374 jail inmates.


January 18, 2011: Thoughts on Branstad’s voting rights executive order

Covered the key points of the executive order, with quotes from its critics and defenders. Branstad explicitly wanted to block Iowans from voting after a felony conviction until they have paid all fines, court costs, other fees, and restitution.

July 1, 2012: Who Can Vote?

A guest commentary by Bleeding Heartland user IowaVoter on how to advocate for changes in Iowa’s felon disenfranchisement policy, with information on how to help Iowans seeking to regain their voting rights.

July 13, 2012: Iowa values, Iowa justice

After Branstad expressed support for Jeff Lamberti’s continued service on the State Racing and Gaming Commission, despite being arrested for driving with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, I noted that the governor’s policy created insurmountable barriers to people with criminal records who lack much cash or connections.

March 3, 2014: Terry Branstad’s philosophy of second chances

Juxtaposed the governor’s reappointment of Lamberti to a powerful state commission after a drunk driving arrest with Branstad’s voting rights policy, under which only about 40 Iowans with felony regained the right to vote over a three-year period.

March 21, 2014: Panel clears Tony Bisignano to run in Iowa Senate district 17; court may have final say

Explains the origin of the lawsuit that led to last year’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling on felon voting rights. Ned Chiodo argued that because his Democratic primary rival Bisignano had committed a second-offense OWI, an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by a prison sentence, he did not have the right to stand for public office.

April 3, 2014: Court rejects challenge to Bisignano candidacy in Iowa Senate district 17

Covers the Polk County District Court ruling on Chiodo’s lawsuit.

April 15, 2014: Divided Iowa Supreme Court rules Tony Bisignano can run in Iowa Senate district 17

Six Iowa Supreme Court justices unanimously concluded that under Iowa law, only felonies (not aggravated misdemeanors) are “infamous crimes” that bar a citizen from voting or running for office. Three justices joined Chief Justice Mark Cady’s plurality opinion in the Chiodo case, which suggested that not all felonies should be considered “infamous.”

November 7, 2014: Three silver linings from Iowa’s 2014 elections

This post includes the American Civil Liberties Union’s announcement of a lawsuit on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, a non-violent drug offender barred from voting under Iowa’s policy. The ACLU waited until after the election to file suit, because Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel (who had recused himself from the Chiodo case) would presumably have recused himself from any case affecting who could vote for his wife Staci Appel, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2014.

September 30, 2015: District Court upholds Iowa law, Branstad executive order on disenfranchising felons

Highlights from Polk County District Court Judge Arthur Gamble’s ruling.

March 28, 2016: Iowa county governments: Don’t inconvenience us by protecting fundamental constitutional rights

A preview of the arguments the Iowa Supreme Court was about to hear in the Griffin v. Pate case, with an extended discussion of amicus curiae briefs filed by the Iowa State Association of Counties and Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald.

March 31, 2016: Seven thoughts about the oral arguments in Iowa’s major voting rights case

My analysis of the Supreme Court’s one-hour hearing of arguments for both sides in Griffin.

April 20, 2016: Why is Iowa’s secretary of state playing politics with felon voting case?

A critical look at Secretary of State Paul Pate’s extraordinary public relations campaign against expanding voting rights, while the Iowa Supreme Court considered its verdict in the case where he was a defendant.

May 2, 2016: Was “streamlined” voting rights process designed for felons or Iowa Supreme Court justices?

After Branstad shortened the application for restoration of voting rights a second time, I looked closely at the changes and explained why they didn’t reduce the most important barriers facing ex-offenders.

June 30, 2016: Divided Iowa Supreme Court upholds felon voting ban; key points and political reaction

Excerpts from and analysis of the majority opinion written by Cady and joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Bruce Zager, and Thomas Waterman, as well as the dissents by Justices Appel, Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins.

July 7, 2016: Three paths to expanding felon voting rights in Iowa

In light of the Griffin majority ruling, reviewed the options for those who hope to bring Iowa in line with how most states approach voting rights for people with felony convictions.

July 13, 2016: Terry Branstad won’t acknowledge inequities of his voting rights policy

Responded to the governor’s comments about voting as “a privilege” that must be balanced with responsibilities including financial obligations.

July 14, 2016: Why did Chief Justice Cady change his mind about felon voting rights?

My speculation about why the author of the 2014 opinion that inspired Kelli Jo Griffin’s lawsuit ultimately decided our state constitution “permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship.”

October 26, 2016: Coalition will work to expand felon voting rights in Iowa

Discussed the move by seventeen advocacy groups to form a Restore Fair Voting Rights in Iowa coalition, as well as Branstad’s defense of his policy.

May 24, 2017: First speech by Governor Kim Reynolds reveals major blind spots

Argued that “Abandoning Branstad’s policy on voting rights would be an easy way for Reynolds to show she believes in second chances and success after addiction.”

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  • Branstad's own immediate family...

    …has had some legal problems with substance abuse, as anyone knows who has followed Iowa news for the past few decades. There was also the car accident involving speeding and unsafe passing that killed an elderly couple, about which questions were asked regarding whether a Branstad family member got special treatment. The Branstads paid a substantial sum to the estate of the dead couple, which they were, fortunately for them, able to do.

    That’s what I remember whenever I read about Branstad’s harsh position on felon voting. I’ll bet many other Iowans remember it as well.