“Quite simply, when someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crimes, they should have their right to vote restored automatically, plain and simple,” Governor Kim Reynolds said on August 5, shortly before signing a critically important document.
Executive Order 7 automatically restores voting rights to most Iowans who have completed prison sentences or terms of probation or parole associated with felony convictions. The Iowa-Nebraska NAACP estimated that the order paves the way for more than 40,000 people to vote this year. Going forward, approximately 4,700 Iowans who complete felony sentences each year will regain the same rights.
Reynolds had publicly promised to sign such an order seven weeks ago, after Republican senators declined to advance the state constitutional amendment that was her preferred way of addressing the problem.
Both the substance of the measure and the way the governor announced it revealed aspects of her leadership style.
REJECTING A REPUBLICAN-BACKED POLL TAX
The most surprising thing about the order was that Reynolds did not make voting conditional on a person’s ability to pay any court fees, fines, or restitution. Her administration has long required Iowans seeking the franchise to demonstrate that they are regularly making payments to settle such debts. Here’s the most recent version of the application, after it was simplified in March 2019.
Those weren’t empty words on paper. Reynolds has declined to restore voting rights if the applicant could not show progress toward paying such fees.
This week, Jaime Achenbaugh of Council Bluffs shared with Bleeding Heartland a copy of a letter from the governor’s deputy legal counsel Michael Boal, dated January 30, 2020. It states that he is returning Achenbaugh’s application because “it appears you have not yet entered into a payment plan to repay fines, costs, and restitution ordered” as a result of his conviction.
Achenbaugh commented via email that putting monetary strings on the right to vote is “blatant voter oppression.” He was not ordered to pay any restitution; the police report for his non-violent drug charge listed “society” as the victim. But he owes almost $3,000 in court costs, which he cannot repay because it’s hard to find a job with a felony conviction and no driver’s license (he lost his while serving time).
“I live in America & am an American citizen. Money should play no part in my right to vote,” Achenbaugh told me.
Eric Harris of Coralville, who hasn’t voted since his convictions at age 20 two decades ago, told me he has long “felt left out and treated as a second class citizen of this country.” But he did not even apply to have his voting rights restored, because he could not afford the court costs and fines associated with those offenses.
Legislation Reynolds signed two months ago was another reason I expected financial strings to come with the new executive order. That bill, which Republicans approved over Democratic objections that it was a poll tax, would have required payment of “all pecuniary damages owed to a natural person” before Iowans could regain voting rights, in the event the state constitution was amended to eliminate the lifetime ban on voting by those who had committed “infamous crimes.”
Jason Clayworth and Stephen Gruber-Miller reported for the Des Moines Register in March, “Nearly one in four Iowa felony convictions in the last two years came with a victim restitution debt […]. The average tab for those nearly 4,000 convictions is $11,607.”
A reporter asked Reynolds on August 5 why she had signed that bill, given that Executive Order 7 did not tie voting rights to a person’s ability to pay. She explained that she had never advocated for full restitution payments as a condition of voting, but “When you’re negotiating, there’s some things you have to negotiate to keep it moving forward.”
While U.S. Representative Steve King chastised the governor for expanding the electorate and potentially costing Senator Joni Ernst votes, most Republican state lawmakers were nominally on board with automatic restoration of voting rights. However, many wanted to treat Iowans with criminal records differently, depending on whether they had spare cash to cover financial obligations.
I anticipated the governor would cater to those views and am very glad she proved me wrong.
Reynolds did make one gesture toward Republicans. Under her order, Iowans convicted of homicides such as murder or manslaughter will not have their rights automatically restored. They will need to apply individually, if they are ever released from prison and complete their parole. According to a Des Moines Register article by Ian Richardson and Stephen Gruber-Miller, about 120 people are convicted of homicide a year in Iowa. The most serious sex offenders won’t get their voting rights back until they complete “special sentences” that are sometimes tacked on to prison sentences or terms of parole.
TAKING HER TIME
Like many Iowans, I wanted Reynolds to issue this order years ago. She didn’t begin advocating for voting rights until January 2019, more than year and a half after assuming the governor’s powers. Then she spent the next year and a half trying to persuade Republican lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Iowans were deprived of the chance to participate in the city and school board elections of 2017, the 2018 primary and general elections, another round of local elections in 2019, the 2020 Iowa caucuses, and this year’s primary, which had record-setting turnout.
After promising in mid-June to take unilateral action by the end of this summer, Reynolds didn’t appreciate questions about when she would follow through. But for affected voters and their advocates, time was of the essence.
An executive order doesn’t automatically add anyone to Iowa’s voter rolls. Every individual will need to register. To do that, they must be informed about their options, and will have to show some form of accepted ID and proof of residence.
Reynolds somewhat simplified matters by not requiring payment of fines or fees. Verifying that a person had settled those debts would have introduced more delays.
Asked about the timing on August 5, Reynolds indicated that it had been a busy summer, with her legal counsel working on many things related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She argued that she had issued the order “in a timely manner,” and that “absentee ballot requests are just going out now.”
But thousands of newly eligible electors will not get on the rolls in time to receive the absentee ballot request forms Secretary of State Paul Pate will send later this month to every active registered voter in Iowa.
More than two-thirds of Iowa’s African Americans live in five counties: Polk, Scott, Linn, Black Hawk, and Johnson.
Linn County has already completed its universal absentee ballot request mailing. Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder told me on August 2 that his office will mail ballot request forms “in four segments, on August 5, 7, 10 and 12.” Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald likewise said his county-wide mailing is set for sometime in the first half of August. Scott County hasn’t set a date yet, and Johnson County will wrap up its universal mailing in early September.
The Polk County Democrats have set aside funds to mail absentee ballot request forms to every newly enfranchised person in Iowa’s largest county, and I hope organizations in all counties will do the same.
AVOIDING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Reynolds told those assembled in her office,
Iowa holds the unfortunate status as the only state in the country that prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from voting or holding public office for life, unless they petition the governor to restore those rights.
That creates the potential for uneven justice. It means people who have served their sentence and are seeking to get their lives back on track permanently are prohibited from one of the most basic rights of citizenship, unless a single individual decides otherwise.
And as we work to address issues of racial disparities, we cannot ignore how negatively and significantly the current process has impacted the lives of so many Iowans of color. The right to vote and seek public office is important for so many reasons, including enabling someone to become a full member of society again.
A minute later, she added,
Today we are taking a step to at least temporarily fix that injustice that our current system creates. But let me be clear: an executive order is, at best, a temporary solution. It can be changed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor, which is not good enough.
Something that is fundamentally right should not be based on the benevolence of a single elected official. That’s why I have been fighting to amend the Iowa Constitution, and that’s why I will continue to do so. I am hoping that that same passion with which people have called for this executive order will now be directed at getting the constitutional amendment passed.
What’s missing from this picture? Any acknowledgement of the villain in this story: former Governor Terry Branstad.
Reynolds’ mentor was so eager to reinstate a lifetime ban on voting that he rescinded Governor Tom Vilsack’s 2005 executive order only hours after being inaugurated in January 2011. He subsequently restored voting rights to just 206 Iowans in more than six years.
It would be impossible to calculate the harm Branstad did to those he disenfranchised, or the thousands of hours of unpaid labor that hundreds of voting rights advocates have devoted to this issue over the last nine and a half years.
More than 100,000 Iowans regained their voting rights while Vilsack’s order was in effect. Had Branstad left what was “fundamentally right” alone, tens of thousands wouldn’t have been treated like second-class citizens this past decade. Well-meaning people like Kelli Jo Griffin would not have faced malicious prosecution. Reynolds would not have needed to expend any political capital on this problem.
Does the governor regret the Branstad administration’s mass disenfranchisement of Iowans? Does any part of her wish she had argued for changing the policy as lieutenant governor, or acted sooner after becoming governor in May 2017?
Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg and senior legal counsel Sam Langholz are both former state public defenders. With hindsight, do they have any reflections on how long they allowed Iowa to remain a disgraceful outlier on disenfranchisement?
Only one person mentioned Branstad’s name during the signing ceremony. After thanking Reynolds for the “huge effort,” NAACP Iowa-Nebraska President Betty Andrews noted that her organization has been working “long and hard” on this “since Governor Branstad revoked Governor Vilsack’s order.” (Fact check: true.)
“We know that even before you became governor, you listened to us during our meetings with Governor Branstad,” Andrews continued.
Reynolds should have listened harder. She could have issued this order on any day during the past three years.
Everyone deserves a second chance, including Republican elected officials. But politicians who expect lavish praise for fixing a mistake should admit and apologize for their own role in perpetuating the problem.
KEEPING SOME VOICES OUT OF THE ROOM
Executive Order 7 may be the most meaningful step Reynolds has ever taken to improve Iowans’ lives. But it wasn’t all benevolence on display.
The governor served up a portion of racial justice with a heavy dose of tone policing.
“Getting things done involves coming to the table, and I want to thank our broad and diverse coalition that has advocated for the restoration of voting rights for those who have completed their felony sentences,” Reynolds said. She named the NAACP, the religious conservative group FAMiLY Leader, the ACLU of Iowa, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and some legislators who have been “phenomenal advocates”: Republican State Senators Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ken Rozenboom, and Democratic State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad.
Some of Iowa’s most dedicated activists for the disenfranchised were excluded from the signing ceremony: namely, State Representative Ras Smith and local leaders of Black Lives Matter. Smith and Abdul-Samad helped facilitate a June 12 meeting between the governor and half a dozen Black Lives Matter activists, but only Abdul-Samad was an invited guest this week.
Reynolds told reporters, “This I kept to a really small group,” individuals she had worked with for the past two years. She indicated a “much bigger celebration” will happen later.
More likely, the governor and her staff didn’t want to give a platform to those who might say something critical. Smith appeared at a Black Lives Matter rally in July where he read aloud a draft executive order that was more expansive than what Reynolds just signed. He has used his Twitter account on a daily basis to demand that the governor act quickly on her promise to restore voting rights.
Valued members of the “broad and diverse coalition” displayed more patience this summer and had only good things to say about Reynolds on August 5. Here’s an excerpt from the governor’s news release.
“The NAACP fervently believes that the right to participate in the political process is a defining aspect of citizenship and our democracy here in Iowa and America. Governor Kim Reynolds’ action today in issuing this Executive Order restoring the right to vote to thousands with felony records is an act of tremendous significance to Iowans, to those whose right to vote is being restored, to be sure, but also to their families and to all of us,” said Betty C. Andrews, President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, which for several years has led advocacy efforts to ensure the right to vote for individuals with a felony background. “This action will benefit people regardless of race or ethnicity, but with the grave racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it will very significantly benefit African Americans and other people of color.”
Speaking briefly after Reynolds signed the order, Andrews expressed her gratitude multiple times. “We do want to thank you for answering the call. This is extremely important. The right to vote is a fundamental act of citizenship.”
Abdul-Samad thanked Reynolds repeatedly too.
Many hands that went into this, but it boiled down to the governor taking a stand, standing up to a promise that I know we had talked about over two years ago. […]
And I want to say from all of us, thank you for doing this, it’s imperative that we get it done. […] So thank you very much, and thank you for the meaningful comment.
And to the lieutenant governor [Adam Gregg], I know you’re there behind the scenes. But again, governor, we can’t emphasize enough, thank you.
Knowing nothing about the local hip hop scene, I didn’t recognize the man standing next to Abdul-Samad in the governor’s office. I realized later it was Des Moines-based rapper Will Keeps. He didn’t seem to be scheduled to speak, but he asked to say a few words:
Look what working together look like. Can we all clap for that?
By building relationships and working together, we can get a lot of things done. So thank you, Kim, I appreciate you, you have been an unbelievable governor, and I love you for that. Thank you so much.
I get it, really I do. When the other side holds all the cards, be pragmatic. Encourage baby steps. Don’t burn bridges. Half a loaf is better than nothing. That mindset comes naturally to me. Sometimes, it gets results.
Black Lives Matter leaders don’t see the world like their Gen X or Baby Boomer allies. They don’t adjust demands to what seems achievable today. They don’t center white leaders just because they have power. They lead chants like “Use your pen! Sign that shit!”
While their approach may be unpopular with the political establishment, it has obvious value.
No one can credibly argue that Reynolds and Republican statehouse leaders would have made policing reform a priority in June if not for large daily protests in Des Moines and elsewhere following the police killing of George Floyd. Those protests heightened a sense of urgency around lifting barriers to voting that have always affected African Americans disproportionately.
Even as Reynolds signed the police reform bill on June 12, young activists chanted “Black Lives Matter!” and “Let them vote!” It’s striking to see how studiously Reynolds ignored them for several minutes. She didn’t even glance in their direction as she signed the bill, handed out pens, and chatted with supporters.
This week, Abdul-Samad wore a t-shirt featuring the late, great John Lewis in the governor’s office and declared the voting rights order a tribute to Lewis’ legacy. The irony is that like today’s Black Lives Matter protesters, Lewis didn’t limit himself to politically correct ways of getting his point across.
“WE’RE NOT GOING TO SIT HERE AND UPLIFT KIM REYNOLDS”
Des Moines Black Lives Matter leaders organized their own press conference on the afternoon of August 5. You can watch the whole event on Facebook. Courtnei Caldwell set the tone early: “Us not being invited to the signing is being silenced, in a way, because we have fought. We have been abused we have been exploited. We have been harassed, in many ways, and Kim has not reached out.”
Matthew Bruce thanked Republicans sarcastically.
Thank you for showing your ass and lying to us, so that everyone can see how Kim Reynolds works. […] So thank you, Kim Reynolds and the GOP for showing your ass. Yes, I’m gonna say it in front of all these cameras.”
Several speakers decried the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters this summer. They called on officials to drop charges filed against Black Lives Matter supporters, and lift the ban on thirteen people who are not allowed to set foot on the state capitol grounds. Several also alluded to the day in June when the governor’s sport utility vehicle struck Black Lives Matter organizer Jaylen Cavil as he stood in the road, trying to stop the governor from leaving. (Reynolds later said the trooper at the wheel “acted appropriately.”)
When it was Cavil’s turn at the mic, he told listeners,
I’m not going to thank Kim Reynolds. […] I think that what Kim Reynolds showed us this entire process was just how much of a coward she really is. […]
Yeah, Kim Reynolds is a coward. She showed us this entire time.
During the 51 days since Reynolds committed to sign an executive order, Cavil said, Black Lives Matter reached out to her office many times for updates. They didn’t hear back from her or her staff; “she ran from us this entire time.”
He remarked on how Reynolds walked away at the end of her August 4 press conference when reporters asked about the executive order. Surely she must already have known she’d be signing it the following morning.
Cavil’s bottom line:
“We see this as a small victory. We’re not going to sit here and uplift Kim Reynolds and say look at this civil rights hero, look what she’s done for the community. Because she hasn’t.”
Even though they had two in-person meetings with Reynolds in June to discuss the voting rights order, they learned about the signing on Twitter like everyone else.
We were the ones that she made the guarantee with, that she would work with us, and that she would sign this executive order. And then she straight up ghosted us. Ghosted us for two months, and then out of the blue, announces she’s going to sign this executive order, and invites folks like Will Keeps. Why was Will Keeps invited to this? […]
Will Keeps has not been fighting for this issue. You know, she invited him because he’s her friend, she wants to tokenize him. He’s a Black person that supports her. So we don’t agree with that.
Cavil and other speakers said Reynolds’ order doesn’t go far enough in re-enfranchising Iowans who are still incarcerated, on probation, or parole.
They weren’t in a mood to apologize later, as this Facebook post shows.
“DIRECT ACTION WORKS…A LOT QUICKER THAN THE 10-YEAR PROCESS”
The governor wasn’t the only target for criticism at the Black Lives Matter news conference.
Bruce gave credit to protesters who showed up day after day, despite being “brutalized” by police. He said their approach was more successful than the incremental work of others.
Direct action works. And it works a lot quicker than the 10-year process that Betty [Andrews] and everybody else up there today sponsored. And that process would have still been processing had we not stepped up and did what we had to do to get it to the finish line.
Cavil described Ras Smith as “the greatest ally” of the local group. “He has been using his power and his voice to help us.” Even though he lives in Waterloo, Cavil said, Smith “is standing with us more than any other Des Moines politician has.”
After recounting the many injustices Black Americans face regularly, Yena Balekyani called out prominent African Americans in central Iowa.
The Black leadership in this town have continually failed the Black youth. They have continually told us that they want to give us the mic, they have continually told us that they want us to lead, but they’re not listening. They are holding too tight to the reins. And we want to take the lead! […]
Photo ops are not going to save Black people, ok? Photo ops don’t change policy. Action does. Action! We want action!
Smith wasn’t able to come to Des Moines on August 5 but released this written statement, which was read aloud at the Black Lives Matter event.
While this executive order wasn’t as expansive as the order we drafted, it is a win. It’s a win and I am happy for the 10s of thousands of Iowans who will be able to let their voices be heard in November. And at the same time I am steadfast in working to make sure thousands of more will one day have that same opportunity. I am grateful to be able to work along side and support such hard working and dedicated individuals in DSM BLM. Without you all this doesn’t happen. Without you all putting your bodies, your time and everything in your being into this fight for social justice, that ordered doesn’t get signed today. You all are a testament to us all that the work we do is greater than any one individual. You motivate and inspire me everyday. While we rejoice in this small victory today, we know we must get back to work tomorrow. In this fight for equality, we need all hands on deck, so; if you haven’t done anything do something, after you’ve done something do more, and if you know you have more in you, do all that you can.
Signing the voting rights order will be remembered a highlight of Reynolds’ tenure as governor.
Snubbing Black Lives Matter was an unfortunate choice, which made her seem thin-skinned and insecure. A confident leader can look past criticism–even harsh criticism–to identify and build on shared goals.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently recalled how he got to know Larry Kramer, an activist for AIDS victims, after “He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine.”
Addressing Dr. Fauci in the letter, Mr. Kramer wrote: “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”
“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him,’” Dr. Fauci recalled. “So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”
The governor could learn a lot from Dr. Fauci, not only about coronavirus.
P.S.- Chelsea Chism-Vargas made an essential point at the Black Lives Matter news conference.
One thing I keep seeing published is “felon voting rights.” We really need to get beyond talking about these folks and referring to them as felons. These folks are our neighbors, these folks are our family members, these folks belong in our community. And when we’re simply describing them by the crimes that they committed, we’re dehumanizing them. So I also encourage all the press here to really pull away from that narrative.
After hearing The Bail Project’s Shelton McElroy touch on that topic during his speech at the NAACP’s Summit on Justice and Disparities last October, I resolved to do better. Bleeding Heartland’s editorial policy no longer describes people with convictions as “felons” or “offenders.”
Top image: Screen shot from the August 5 video of Governor Kim Reynolds announcing her voting rights executive order. Behind the governor, from left: Republican State Senators Ken Rozenboom and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, NAACP Iowa-Nebraska president Betty Andrews, Democratic State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, and ACLU of Iowa executive director Mark Stringer.