Voting Rights Restoration
by Matthew T. Clarke
On July 6, 2005, Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa signed an Executive Order which enacted a blanket restoration of citizenship rights to ex-prisoners who have completed their sentences. This allows persons previously convicted of a felony or aggravated misdemeanor to recover their rights to vote and hold public office. It does not restore their right to own firearms. The move could affect up to 50,000 Iowans in the next election cycle.
Under Iowa law, persons convicted of aggravated misdemeanors and felonies lose their rights to vote and hold public office. Under previous law, such persons who had completed their sentences and fully paid all fines, restitution, and other financial obligations could individually petition the governor for restoration of their citizenship rights. The process took up to six months. The Executive Order removes the requirement of fully paying restitution, fines and financial obligations and makes the restoration process automatic upon application following completion of the sentence.
Nationally, disenfranchisement serves to deny voting rights to 6.7 million Americans, 500,000 of them war veterans and 1.6 million of them black. Thus, it has a disproportionate effect on blacks who make up 2% of the population, but almost 25% of the disenfranchised ex-prisoners. Iowa has one of the highest rates of incarceration for blacks in the country.
Nebraska and Iowa were the last two states outside the South to ban voting by ex-prisoners, according to Catherine Weiss, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center recently sued Florida in an attempt to overturn its prohibition on voting by ex-prisoners. The Florida law disenfranchises about 600,000 people. Ms. Weiss also noted that the Second Circuit court of appeals will consider whether the New York law denying voting rights to felons on parole violates the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately disenfranchising minorities.
Ryan King, a research associate at the Sentencing Project, noted that only Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Virginia still permanently disenfranchise any person convicted of a felony or aggravated misdemeanor. If those states passed laws similar to the Iowa Executive Order, about a million ex-prisoners would have their voting rights restored. King praised Visack.
The governor's choice of doing this on July 6 is very symbolic," said King. It's a celebration of democracy.
However, some victims' rights groups were critical -complaining that Vilsack should not have removed the requirement of having fully paid restitution before voting rights could be restored. Republican State Senator Chuck Larson of Cedar Rapids accused Vilsack of making criminals' rights far more important than victims' rights." Vilsack countered by pointing out that ex-prisoners with restored rights are still required to pay fines and restitution.
Sources: New York Times, Des Moines Register.
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