Posted on February 3, 2020

Why the Iowa Caucuses are Even Whiter Than You Think

Kira Lerner, Washington Post, January 30, 2020

As with every presidential election cycle when the Iowa caucuses approach, voters elsewhere have been left to wonder why such an unrepresentative state plays an outsize role in American democracy. Iowa voters are more rural than the national average, but the most notable demographic difference is Iowa’s whiteness: 90.7 percent of the population is white, compared with 76.5 percent nationally.

Yet the Democratic caucuses on Feb. 3 are going to be even whiter than that disparity suggests, because the state practices a de facto form of racial disenfranchisement: a lifetime voting ban for anyone ever convicted of a felony.

Just 4 percent of Iowa’s population is black, but blacks make up 26 percent of the state’s prison population. In 2016, a study by the Sentencing Project ranked Iowa third worst in the nation for its 1 in 17 incarceration rate of adult black males; the white/black differential was 11 to 1, also third worst nationally. (The disenfranchisement of Latinos is less pronounced; they make up 6.2 percent of Iowa’s population, and the Latino/white imprisonment ratio is 1.7 to 1.)

Thousands of black Iowa residents who have served time in prison will be barred from caucusing on Monday, because the state parties restrict participation to registered voters.


More than 160 years after Iowa’s constitution was broadly written to bar “a person convicted of any infamous crime” from voting, the state maintains the policy. Iowans who have completed felony sentences can have their right to vote restored only if they file an application with the governor. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has simplified the application and recently vowed to review the backlog of 347 applications currently on her desk before the caucuses.

Every state, other than Maine and Vermont (where felons can vote even while incarcerated), practices a degree of disenfranchisement, based on criteria such as the nature of the crime involved or the completion of parole or probation. A study by the Sentencing Project in 2016 found that 6 million Americans were barred from the polls by felony disenfranchisement. Many states are rethinking their policies, and even some of those with harsher rules are either relaxing them, as in Florida, or their governors are acting unilaterally to enfranchise people with felony convictions, seemingly confident of the public’s support.