When Republican Governor Terry Branstad took office in 2011, he reversed a six-year-old policy instituted by former Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, which had automatically reinstated felons’ voting rights upon their release from prison or discharge from community supervision. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.37].
More than 8,000 felons in Iowa have completed their prison sentence or been released from supervision since Branstad took office, but less than a dozen had regained their voting rights as of mid-2012.
“Wow – that seems pretty low,” observed Rita Bettis, a lobbyist for ACLU Iowa.
Branstad, who was Iowa’s governor from 1982 to 1998, implemented a policy similar to one that preceded Vilsack’s administration. Under Branstad’s policy, former offenders must navigate an onerous bureaucratic process to obtain reinstatement of their citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
The process includes a 31-question application; one of the questions requires the applicant to supply the current address of the judge who handled his or her conviction. A criminal history report, which costs $15 and takes weeks to obtain, must be submitted. The most controversial requirement is the submission of a full credit report. The review of the application can then take up to six months.
Even with the assistance of counsel, the process is not always navigable. Henry Straight, 40, lost his voting rights as a result of a conviction for stealing a soda machine as a teenager and fleeing while on bond. He hired an attorney and spent a year trying to obtain his voting rights. Branstad’s office rejected his application because Straight failed to submit a full credit report; the summary he provided failed to show that he had paid off decades-old court costs.
“They make the process just about impossible,” said Straight. “I hired a lawyer to navigate it for me and I still got rejected. Isn’t that amazing?”
Governor Branstad’s stringent voting rights reinstatement policy contravenes a national trend that began in 1996, to make it easier for felons to regain their ability to vote. Kentucky, Florida and Virginia are the only other states that require the governor’s permission for reinstatement of voting rights, though they don’t require a credit report. Voting rights are automatically restored to felons in 38 states, sometimes after they have completed their terms of parole or probation. Only Maine and Vermont never disenfranchise felons – even while they are incarcerated. The other states set waiting periods for restoration of rights.
“Iowa is in a dwindling minority of extremely restrictive states,” noted Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization that advocates for policies that make it easier for former offenders to regain their voting rights. For felons, Governor Branstad is “making your right to vote contingent on your financial status,” Mauer stated.
Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz had urged Branstad to reinstate the onerous application process to “send a message to Iowa’s voters that their voting privilege is sacred and will not be compromised.”
In December 2012, however, Governor Branstad indicated that he would streamline the application process for reinstatement of felons’ voting rights after the NAACP raised concerns as part of its “Restore the Votes” campaign. A new version of the state’s restoration of rights application has simplified the instructions, includes a detailed checklist to ensure applicants provide all of the required documentation and, most importantly, dispenses with the credit report requirement.
The five-page application still requires applicants to provide the current address of their sentencing judge, to answer questions about child support and alimony obligations and whether they have filed state or federal tax returns, and to provide a copy of their criminal history record.
“When an individual commits a felony, it is fair they earn their rights back by paying restitution to their victim, court costs, and fines,” Governor Branstad stated. “Iowa has a good and fair policy on the restoration of rights for convicted felons, and to automatically restore the right to vote without requiring the completion of the responsibilities associated with the criminal conviction would damage the balance between the rights and responsibility of citizens.”
In February 2013, the NAACP Iowa State Conference paid for a billboard near the state capitol that advocated for “restoring the votes of people with former felony convictions who have completed all the terms of their sentences.”
According to NAACP senior director for voting rights Jotaka Eaddy, “The faces on the billboard represent millions of citizens whose voices are silenced because of past felony convictions. These are parents, taxpayers, students, employees, and in some cases employers who are expected to reintegrate and function normally in a society where they cannot cast a vote.”
Sources: Associated Press, The Gazette, http://wqad.com
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