Iowa Found a Way to Keep Felons From Voting But Problems Remain
IOWA - November 22, 2018
Iowa is one of three states, along with Kentucky and Florida, that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions unless they complete the state's prohibitive restoration process and receive approval to vote from the state government.
But in Florida, the state's felon disenfranchisement law could soon change—voters weighed in on a constitutional amendment on their election ballots that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents who have completed their sentences.
Nationwide, some 6.2 million citizens cannot vote or hold office because they have felony records, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center that aims to reduce incarceration rates in the United States and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Of those disenfranchised voters, approximately 52,000 live in Iowa, nearly 7,000 of whom are African-American.
Data from the Sentencing Project shows that in 2016, Iowa’s imprisonment rate was 282 inmates per 100,000 residents, with 8,998 people incarcerated, 29,819 on probation and 5,901 on parole. Of those, the data shows African-Americans were incarcerated at a ratio of 11 to 1 when compared to the white inmate population.
As of November 3, the governor's office had 25 pending applications from felons seeking to restore their voting rights and it was expected to have those applications completed by Election Day. Before that Gov. Kim Reynolds had restored the voting rights of 65 people.
"The governor's practice is to restore the voting rights of all individuals who have discharged their sentence and have paid their court costs, restitution and fines, or are current on payments and making a good-faith effort to continue to pay those costs," Brenna Smith, spokesperson for the governor's office, said in an email.
Reports compiled on the Iowa Legislature website showed an average 23 post-conviction felons had their voting rights restored each year over the past seven years.
28 felons had their voting rights restored in 2017, with Reynolds granting 17 requests and her predecessor Terry E. Branstad granting 11 requests that year.
In 2011, former Gov. Branstad restored the voting rights of 3 people. The following year, 17 had their rights restored, and in 2014 Branstad restored the rights of 23 people. 2016 was a bit of an anomaly with the rights of 106 people being restored, though the governor’s office did not provide details. There was no data available for 2013 and 2015.
The restoration process usually takes a long time, according to Veronica Lorson Fowler, Communications Director for the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union.
"Some people looking at the application may think to themselves, 'It's only one page,' but it's only one page the way a tax form might be only two pages," she said. "Putting together the required materials and documentation is daunting. There are a lot of materials the applicant is required to gather, and with that comes a lot of additional forms that they need to fill out in order to request that information and documentation. And, if they mess up, there are legal penalties."
The application process is divided into five steps, according to a guide on the ACLU website. First, the person seeking to restore their right to vote must obtain and fill out an application for the restoration of citizenship rights.
Next comes the acquisition of supplementary materials, such as a copy of the person’s complete criminal history and documentation from the courts that show the applicant is current on their payments of restitution, fines and court costs. If the fees have not been paid in full, the applicant must include a written explanation as to why.
All of those materials must then be complied and mailed to the governor’s office.
Fowler said because the application process is complicated, those who are able may opt to hire an attorney to help navigate their way through.