Latest reform won't help vast majority of Iowans disenfranchised over felonies

On the same day Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear restored voting rights to some 140,000 constituents who previously committed nonviolent crimes, Governor Kim Reynolds rolled out an incremental step to make it easier for Iowans to regain their voting rights after completing a felony sentence.

It was the fourth time the application process has been simplified in nearly nine years since Governor Terry Branstad restored Iowa’s lifetime ban on voting after a felony conviction.

Although the new policy may marginally increase the number of Iowans who can cast a ballot in 2020, it will leave tens of thousands of Iowans unable to vote for years. It’s not clear the governor’s office will be able to process all of the new applications in time for next year’s general election.

Reynolds could mostly solve this problem in a day. She clings to an unconvincing rationale for not doing so.

LESS THAN 1 PERCENT REGAIN VOTING RIGHTS OVER NEARLY NINE YEARS

Branstad simplified the voting rights application twice–the second time as the Iowa Supreme Court was considering a challenge to the state’s harsh felon voting policy. Changing the form failed to meaningfully address the barriers facing more than 50,000 Iowans who had lost their voting rights. Over more than six years, Branstad restored the franchise to only 206 people–hardly the “simple,” “efficient,” and “convenient” process he had promised.

Applications continued to trickle in at a slow rate after Reynolds succeeded her mentor. She granted 35 requests to restore voting rights during her first year as governor. Speaking to state legislators this January, a little more than a year and a half after she began to exercise the governor’s powers, Reynolds said she had approved 88 voting rights applications.

In March, the Reynolds administration further simplified the form and eliminated a $15 fee. At that time, the governor said her office would attempt to process all voting rights applications within one month.

They haven’t come close. The governor’s deputy legal counsel Michael Boal told Bleeding Heartland on November 12 that Reynolds “has granted 185 applications for restoration of citizenship rights” since delivering her Condition of the State address in January, denying no applications during the same time period. However, 345 voting rights applications were pending review by the governor’s office and the Department of Public Safety.

Boal did not elaborate on the average turnaround time for such requests but said the “earliest application that is still pending review by DPS was received by our office in March of this year.  Our goal is to approve as many pending applications as possible before the 2020 Iowa caucuses.” Since the end of November, the governor’s office has ignored my repeated requests for updated figures.

The Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth reported different numbers in an article published in late November, saying the governor had approved 179 out of “at least 644 voter restoration applications in the past year.”

Reynolds’ staff has told applicants that the process could take more than a year, according to some of the participants in an Oct. 7 forum in Iowa City hosted by InsideOut Reentry Community.

“She has made several different attempts at trying to simplify that process, but she’s not happy with it. We’re not happy with it,” Sam Langholz, the governor’s senior legal counsel, told forum participants.

Keep in mind that at least 115,000 Iowans regained their right to vote during the five and a half years Governor Tom Vilsack’s executive order outlining an automatic restoration process was in effect. The few hundred whose applications were granted by either Branstad or Reynolds represent less than 1 percent of an estimated 52,000 Iowans affected by the ban on voting after a felony conviction.

MAKING IT EASIER FOR IOWANS TO SEEK VOTING RIGHTS

The Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform on December 12 unanimously approved a set of recommendations “for reducing recidivism through successful reentry.” The full document is enclosed below. The first point related to the discharge and reentry process reads,

Better automate and institutionalize the voting rights restoration application upon discharge by providing assistance and ensuring the application is completed prior to leaving the correctional facility or community supervision.

Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Des Moines Register on how the process will work. The Department of Corrections will supply the application with twelve out of fourteen fields filled out. “An officer will now work with each inmate being discharged from the correctional system to complete the last two questions,” according to department Director Beth Skinner.

Some Iowans convicted of a felony never serve a day in prison (one was Kelli Jo Griffin, the plaintiff whose case reached the Iowa Supreme Court). Department of Corrections spokesperson Cord Overton confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on December 12 that staff are working “to implement the use of the auto-filled form for all those that are ending their sentence with a felony conviction,” including those discharged from community based supervision (probation or parole).

How many people would the new policy affect? Overton said that in fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30,

3,745 individuals completed their sentence for a felony conviction under CBC supervision (probation, parole, work release), and for the same year, 947 discharged from prison for the reason of expiration of sentence. So essentially, there would be around 5,000 per year (some years are slightly above 5,000, some slightly below) that are ending their felony conviction sentence. Our goal will be making sure each of them will have this form in their discharge packet.

Each person formerly incarcerated or subject to community-based supervision would still be responsible for mailing the completed form to the governor’s office. Since that office processed fewer than 200 applications during the first ten months of this year, one wonders whether they will have the capacity to get thousands of forms through annually, assuming every Iowan follows through with submitting the form after completing a felony sentence.

The new policy won’t affect the vast majority of Iowans ineligible to vote due to a criminal conviction, who are not currently under Department of Corrections supervision.

Compounding the problem, the felon list elections officials use to determine whether an Iowan is eligible to cast a ballot is notoriously inaccurate. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press recently checked about 700 of 103,000 entries and found some 4 percent “were for misdemeanor convictions that did not trigger the loss of voting rights.” His review of all 359 entries for Carroll County similarly found fifteen cases”— or more than 4 percent — were misdemeanor convictions” that should not prevent the person from voting.

WHY NOT SIGN AN EXECUTIVE ORDER?

Beshear is the latest Democratic governor to change a state’s policy by executive order.  Reynolds has stubbornly refused to go that route, despite appeals from advocates including the NAACP Iowa-Nebraska Conference.

Instead, the governor has pushed for a state constitutional amendment to alter Iowa’s lifetime ban on voting after a felony conviction. The Iowa House approved a version of the amendment this year by 95 votes to 2, but the proposal stalled in the Senate. Even if both chambers approve the amendment this year, it couldn’t take effect anytime soon. The House and Senate would need to pass the same wording again following the 2020 elections, and Iowans would need to approve the amendment on a 2022 statewide ballot.

During a gaggle in late October, I asked Reynolds why she won’t resolve this issue through an executive order. She replied,

The problem with that is there’s uncertainty and it focuses all kind of confusion into the process. Some people don’t know if they can, or what the process is. So for right now, I want to bring some certainty and predictability and finality to it. I don’t want it to be determined on whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair, which way that that goes.

So I believe the best way to move forward is with a constitutional amendment.

I don’t understand how an executive order covering everyone who has completed a felony sentence could be more confusing than the current process.

Furthermore, why is Reynolds worried about the next governor reversing her action? No Democrat who may challenge her in 2022 (or later, if she is re-elected) would support disenfranchising tens of thousands of Iowans.

Reynolds told me,

We are doing everything we can to streamline the process, to make sure that Iowans know what they need to do to get their voting rights back. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people that are utilizing that, and we’re going to continue to work diligently to make sure that they, if they are eligible to get their voting rights back, that we’re making that happen.

But as I later learned, the governor’s staff and the Department of Public Safety are unable to keep up with this year’s faster flow of voting rights restoration requests.

Reynolds should clear a path for many thousands to vote in next year’s elections, instead of the few hundred whose applications will likely reach her desk by next November. An executive order would not stop her from continuing to push for a more durable solution in the form of a constitutional amendment.

UPDATE: State Representative Mary Wolfe, a defense attorney and the Democrat who has taken the lead on this issue in the Iowa House, commented via Facebook that if the governor signed an executive order, future governors couldn’t reverse it with respect to those who had regained their voting rights. “Once citizenship rights are restored they stay restored (unless of course the person is convicted of a new felony). So signing an executive order could only serve to minimize the current confusion, in that it would clarify that every single Iowan who has discharged his/her felony sentence is eligible to vote, period. That’s pretty straightforward.”


Appendix: Report the Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform approved December 12:

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