Posted on August 6, 2020

Iowa Ends Lifetime Voting Ban on People with Felony Convictions

Sam Levine, The Guardian, August 5, 2020

Iowa’s governor signed an executive order on Wednesday ending the state’s lifetime voting ban for anyone with a felony conviction, a historic move because Iowa was the only state in the country enforcing such a severe policy.

The order from Kim Reynolds, a Republican, allows people with felony convictions to vote once they complete their sentences, including parole and probation.

“Today we take a significant step forward in acknowledging the importance of redemption, second chances and the need to address inequalities in our justice system,” Reynolds said in a statement. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of society and the free republic in which we live. When someone serves their sentence, they should have their right to vote restored automatically.”

The order is a major victory for Black Lives Matter activists, who for months protested at the state capitol and pushed Reynolds to quickly sign an order. Roughly 52,000 people – including nearly 10% of eligible African American voters – cannot vote in Iowa because they have felony convictions, according to a 2016 estimate by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit. Nearly 24,000 of those blocked from voting had completed their criminal sentences.

“I’m thankful,” said Robert Pate, who has a felony conviction and runs a mentorship and support group in Des Moines called Image 4 Lives. “People will feel more accepted coming out of prison. People will get more involved with voting. Of course we need more Black people voting, so this opens the door for that as well.”

Those convicted of certain offenses, including murder, manslaughter and abortion after the second trimester – a felony in Iowa – will not have their voting rights automatically restored. But in a significant move, Reynolds said that those convicted of felonies do not have to repay financial obligations before they can vote again. Similar requirements have been used in Florida and elsewhere to significantly limit who can vote.

Kentucky, Virginia, and Florida have all ended blanket bans on felon voting in recent years amid wider recognition of the way they disproportionately prevent African Americans from voting, especially since the community is also disproportionately incarcerated. Many state laws dealing with felon disenfranchisement have roots in the Jim Crow south and were deployed as part of a broader effort to limit Black political power after African Americans gained the right to vote in America.

“It’s certainly been an embarrassment that we were the last state in the country to permanently ban people convicted of felonies from voting,” said Mark Stringer, the executive director of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Stringer said his group strongly welcomed the order, though they believed no one should be exempt from it.

“Because of the rather sweeping nature of this executive order, we think it will be relatively easy to communicate with folks who have felony convictions in their backgrounds that once you’ve completed your sentence, your voting eligibility has been restored,” Stringer said.

Activists have a website where people with felony convictions can check their eligibility. They are also running a social media and texting campaign to inform people about the changes, said Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, who works on efforts to restore voting rights to those with felonies.

Using an executive order to end lifetime disenfranchisement means the change in Iowa could be rescinded by any future governor. There have been see-saws before; in 2005, Tom Vilsack, then Iowa’s Democratic governor, signed an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to those with felony convictions, but the order was rescinded by his Republican successor in 2011. In Virginia and Kentucky, governors also used executive orders to automatically restore voting rights.

The Iowa legislature, controlled by Republicans, has blocked efforts to pass a constitutional amendment permanently ending the policy. Reynolds said Wednesday she would continue to push for an amendment making the change permanent.