Voting 2014: Stories from Iowa

In this year's midterm election, thousands of Iowans could not vote because of past criminal convictions, a burden that disproportionately falls on the state's African American population.

November 19, 2014

America’s struggle for voting rights continues. In the 2014 election, new voting restrictions were in place in 21 states — 14 for the first time in a federal election. These laws ranged from voter ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration limits. In this new series — Voting 2014: Stories from the States — the Brennan Center is collecting stories of citizens who have been unfairly impacted by these new restrictions. Click here to see the entire series.

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Background

In 2014, tens of thousands of Iowans couldn’t vote because of a past criminal conviction. Three years ago, Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who won re-election on November 4, issued an executive order permanently disenfranchising people with criminal convictions unless they apply directly to his office and are ultimately approved for a restoration of their voting rights. In taking this giant step backward, Iowa joined “a dwindling minority of extremely restrictive states,” noted the Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer.

Nationwide, there are as many as 4.4 million Americans — more than the individual population of 24 U.S. states — who have lost the right to cast a ballot, some likely for the remainder of their lives, due to a past criminal conviction. Although the past two decades have seen at least 23 states expand access to the right to vote to such citizens, Iowa is one of three states that permanently disenfranchise these would-be voters, absent an individual restoration granted by the government.

Immediately prior to Branstad’s order, Iowa had a policy of automatic rights restoration upon completion of a felony sentence. In the six years that automatic restoration was in effect, 80,000 Iowans had their voting rights restored. By contrast, in the first three years with the new restrictive policy in effect nearly 25,000 people completed felony sentences, but a mere 40 individuals successfully regained the right to vote. This means there are tens of thousands of Iowans left disenfranchised by the Republican governor’s change in policy.

In Iowa, and across the country, this burden falls disproportionately on African Americans. Nationwide, 1 in 13 African Americans have lost the right to vote due to a prior conviction. Although less than 3 percent of Iowa’s population is black, African Americans represent 25 percent of the state’s prison population.

“They don’t listen to me because I don’t vote.”

The Brennan Center interviewed a citizen named Richard Straight. His story is illustrative of those Iowans who have completed their sentence and want to cast a ballot as part of their reinvestment in society. Mr. Straight lives in Wall Lake, Iowa, and has been unable to get his voting rights back. He cannot afford the $500 lawyer his cousin Henry used, and even if he could pay, there is no guarantee his application will be approved. “It’s impossible for regular people to fill out the paperwork on their own,” Mr. Straight said. “As soon as we are released on paper, and no longer considered a ‘hazard to society,’ we should be able to have the right to vote.”

Mr. Straight wants to vote, and would consider running for his local city council office if he could. He has tried to bring policy issues to the attention of his city council, but realizes that, until he has a vote, his opinion isn’t worth much to politicians: “As much as I would like them to discuss [the issues I care about], they don’t listen to me because I don’t vote. That’s one of the things that is done to [formerly incarcerated people].”

Like Richard Straight, Iowan Kelli Jo Griffin also believes casting a ballot is a key part of contributing to society. That’s why she is challenging Branstad’s policy in Iowa state court, hoping to regain automatic restoration of rights for herself and others.

In 2008, Ms. Griffin was informed that her right to vote would be restored in 2013 when she completed probation for her drug conviction. Although that was accurate in 2008, no one from the state alerted her or others to Branstad’s 2011 executive order, which had rendered her ineligible to vote. So, when she took her children to the polling place with her in 2013 to teach them about the importance of voting, she unknowingly cast an illegal ballot.

Ms. Griffin — along with others in her situation — was swept up in Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s 2014 investigation into voter fraud. A jury acquitted her of wrongdoing in under an hour, but her story provides a worrisome example of how Iowa’s policy ensnares individuals who do not understand their rights, thereby keeping those who are trying to do right caught up in the criminal justice system.

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Criminal justice groups agree the right to vote solidifies a formerly incarcerated individual’s stake in society, and has a dampening effect on recidivism. And as stories like those of Richard Straight and Kelli Jo Griffin illustrate, there are countless individuals who see voting as a fundamental part of their ability to contribute to society. However, unless politicians in Iowa (along with those in Florida and Kentucky) view these citizens as worthy of having a say in who represents them, the 2014 election won’t be the last one in which their right to vote is largely denied.