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Analysis

One State Still Permanently Bars Everyone with Convictions from Voting. That’s About to End.

Iowa’s governor just pledged to give back the right to vote to tens of thousands of people. It’s a huge win, but she needs to do it the right way.

June 18, 2020

Iowa Gov. Kim Reyn­olds commit­ted Tues­day to issu­ing an exec­ut­ive order that would restore voting rights to Iowans with past convic­tions.

This is a big deal — but the details of how and when it happens still matter.

The governor’s announce­ment marks a national turn­ing point. Iowa is the last state in the coun­try with a policy that categor­ic­ally bans people with past convic­tions from voting. The policy dispro­por­tion­ately affects Black Iowans — nearly 10 percent of Black Iowans cannot vote, while the state’s over­all rate of disen­fran­chise­ment is 2 percent. A change in Iowa’s policy would follow nation­wide momentum for restor­ing the right to vote. In the last two years alone, Flor­ida, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Color­ado, and Louisi­ana have expan­ded access to the ballot for people with felony convic­tions.

Much credit goes to Des Moines Black Lives Matter activ­ists. As the coun­try reck­ons once again with anti-Black race discrim­in­a­tion embed­ded in our crim­inal justice system and our social and polit­ical insti­tu­tions more broadly, BLM activ­ists have urged Reyn­olds to use her exec­ut­ive author­ity to restore voting rights to the more than 60,000 Iowans who cannot vote because of mistakes in their past.

Her commit­ment to restore voting rights by exec­ut­ive order is a big step forward. But we haven’t crossed the finish line yet.

The governor’s state­ment comes on the heels of the Iowa Senate fail­ing to advance legis­la­tion that would have amended Iowa’s consti­tu­tion to end the state’s crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment policy. Senate Repub­lic­ans reportedly declined to vote on the bill in the last days of the legis­lat­ive session because Reyn­olds, also a Repub­lican, indic­ated that she would sign an exec­ut­ive order.

The fail­ure to pass the meas­ure should weigh heav­ily on Iowa’s senat­ors and on the governor herself. An exec­ut­ive order and a consti­tu­tional amend­ment are not substi­tutes for one another, they are comple­ment­ary.

An exec­ut­ive order can restore voting rights today and would allow previ­ously disen­fran­chised people to vote this year. That kind of imme­di­ate action is urgently needed with the 2020 elec­tion just months away. But an exec­ut­ive order may also be rescin­ded by a subsequent admin­is­tra­tion. Indeed, that has happened before in Iowa. In 2011, shortly after taking office, Gov. Terry Bran­stad rescin­ded a 2005 order restor­ing voting rights to all Iowans who completed sentences for felony convic­tions. By contrast, amend­ing the state consti­tu­tion would enact a more perman­ent fix. But that process would take two to three years before restor­a­tion can be imple­men­ted.

The senate’s will­ing­ness to hide behind a prospect­ive exec­ut­ive order should spur the governor to act imme­di­ately, and broadly, to restore voting rights to all Iowans living in the community. That means three things.

First, Reyn­olds should not wait until late summer or early fall, just weeks before a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. It takes time to identify and register newly eligible voters, to educate poten­tial voters and local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors about new eligib­il­ity rules, and for new voters to inform them­selves about candid­ates, issues, and voting logist­ics. To state the obvi­ous, the basic purpose of restor­ing voting rights is that newly eligible people can register and vote in elec­tions. Reyn­olds should act as soon as possible to ensure that Iowans whose rights are restored have the time to actu­ally parti­cip­ate in the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Second, the governor should not impose a require­ment that Iowans pay off resti­tu­tion or any other court debt before eligib­il­ity is restored. Such a restric­tion does not serve any govern­mental interest, public safety or other­wise. That’s because restor­ing voting eligib­il­ity would not wipe away an indi­vidu­al’s oblig­a­tion to pay off outstand­ing debt — the duty to pay would remain just the same. And condi­tion­ing voting rights restor­a­tion on repay­ment will not suddenly change the economic circum­stances of people who are unable to pay off their court debts. As a federal court in Flor­ida recently put it, “one cannot get blood from a turnip or money from a person unable to pay.”

Instead, people who cannot afford to pay would have to sit on the side­lines, elec­tion after elec­tion, because they are too poor to vote. There is noth­ing more un-Amer­ican than a law that condi­tions access to demo­cracy on a person’s wealth. In fact, federal courts have said just that: a pay-to-vote system is uncon­sti­tu­tional.

Further, if such a restric­tion on voting exis­ted, it would be impossible to imple­ment any rule fairly. We already know that Iowa’s records regard­ing crim­inal history status are a mess. State records reflect­ing resti­tu­tion oblig­a­tions and payments also appear to be in disar­ray. For example, accord­ing to a report commis­sioned by the Iowa attor­ney gener­al’s office, Iowa’s counties and proba­tion and parole officers lack a mech­an­ism for track­ing payments made toward victim resti­tu­tion and other court debts. A system in which Iowans cannot determ­ine how much they owe, and there­fore, whether they are eligible to vote, would be uncon­sti­tu­tional.

Finally, Reyn­olds should restore voting rights without exclud­ing people with partic­u­lar convic­tions from eligib­il­ity. The crim­inal justice system already accounts for sever­ity of a crime during senten­cing. Heap­ing addi­tional punish­ment — a life­time ban on voting — on some indi­vidu­als serves no public safety purpose and runs counter to the shared Amer­ican value that every person deserves a second chance.

What’s more, carve­outs are diffi­cult for elec­tions offi­cials to admin­is­ter because they are not trained on how to draw lines based on complex senten­cing statuses. The state is still work­ing to clean up its voter list main­ten­ance prac­tices related to people with felony convic­tions. Barring people with certain kinds of convic­tions from eligib­il­ity would only further confuse elec­tion offi­cials and citizens about who is allowed to vote.

Iowans support voting rights restor­a­tion by a margin of more than two-to-one. With the polit­ical winds at her back, Reyn­olds should take bold and expans­ive action to end perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment in Iowa now. It will be a great day for the coun­try when all 50 states have finally left this unjust and undemo­cratic policy in the dust­bin of history.