How Bad Is Iowa’s Mistaken Felon Disenfranchisement Problem?

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate

Guest post from Adam Kenworthy, chair of Iowa Voting Rights Project

KCCI reported on an important story last week regarding a man who was told he could not vote because he was classified as a felon. However, what the reporting revealed was that in fact the man was not a felon and that the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office had classified him as one incorrectly [update: the Secretary of State’s office clarifies that is was the federal courts that erroneously classified the man as a felon; the Secretary of State’s office fixed it within an hour of hearing about it]. A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, when questioned by reporters on this error, stated he hopes this issue is a “one-off.”

That is the response from the administrator of elections when learning that their system has a big issue? They hope it was a fluke?

The reporting by KCCI doesn’t dive deeper or press harder on the issue but someone needs to. The felon voter database that is kept by the Secretary of State’s Office is the system that all registered voters are checked through. It is literally a system that makes the determination about who is eligible to vote in an election. And how is it maintained, controlled, checked, monitored, and kept up to date? We don’t really know.

One other very disturbing aspect of KCCI’s reporting is that the subject of the story, the man who was told he was a felon, was able to obtain a conceal carry permit and yet not register to vote? Don’t these systems pull from the same records? And if not, why not? These are very important issues that need to be addressed and a public oversight system needs to be in place. We are literally talking about a system that gets to decide who can exercise their constitutional right to vote. It might not be a bad idea to have a little more rigorous standard regarding its accuracy than simply crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

This week is an important week in the election cycle; it is the week early voting begins. It is also a time for all of us to be asking more of those who oversee our elections. Iowa candidates across the board should be talking about how we make our elections more democratic and more secure. And all candidates should be calling for an audit of the felon voter database.

Progressive candidates should of course be demanding more, much more, when it comes to the right to vote. It should be a taking point of all candidates to amend the Iowa Constitution so that no citizen ever loses their right to vote. If this right can be stripped from someone by those who make the rules, then it means all of us are vulnerable, and our sentiments about our democratic process ring hollow. If people are looking for a binding progressive narrative, here’s one: your fundamental rights are my fundamental rights, and we will flood the polling places, the ballot boxes and the streets to fight back against those that try to deny us our collective power.

I chair a nonprofit group that is helping to assist and advocate for voting rights in Iowa, The Iowa Voting Rights Project. And one of the main issues we are focusing on is the restoration of voting rights for those with a felony conviction. And in doing this work I have not only seen the pain and shame that comes from not having the right to vote, but the fear and confusion. Many people believe they cannot vote because they have a criminal conviction, which is not true. It must be a felony conviction (specifically a felony conviction after July 4, 2005 but before January 14, 2011; see here for more specific details).

Further, many people are afraid to come back to the system and try to restore or check their eligibility, fearful they may be prosecuted for doing something incorrectly. The purpose of many of these voter suppression laws and tactics is to elicit this exact type of response, hoping to dampen voter registration and voter turnout.

But it is important not to be passive in the face of these obstacles. Voting is one of our best tools for collective action. It is our right, and we must continue to fight for it and protect it from those who wish to reduce it to a simplistic privilege meant to be doled out to those deemed worthy by some self-appointed overseers of “integrity.”

So, we need to be much louder and stronger in our advocacy and our organization. We must pressure and confront all candidates, no matter their party, on the issue of expanding voting rights and accessibility. This must be done all year, not just before an election or legislative term, but always, during the down times, even if you think “your side” is in control. Look to the voting laws of New York for evidence of how those in power try to control the rules to dampen voter participation and turnout. No party has a monopoly on trying to consolidate power though manipulating the system.

In these next few weeks all of us, the press, the activists, the citizen voters, need to hear from the candidates for Governor, Secretary of State and the legislature about how they will implement oversight and change to our election system.

First, we must create a panel or board, to audit and oversee the felon voter database. It should be suspended in the meantime and no one should have to be turned away from voting until we can be assured this system is accurate. This is a short-term concern, long term we need to demand the legislature pass progressive voter legislation like automatic voter registration, and online voter registration (we do not have true online voter registration, only registration through the DOT if you already have an Iowa ID). Further, we need to be organizing and working on permanent amendments to our state and federal constitutions, which will permanently codify the fundamental right to vote.

This is about a short-term and long-term strategy that will take patient urgency. It is about the unrelenting notion that voters must choose those who will represent them and what policies will take precedent. And such a system can never have a true sense of legitimacy if it continues to operate as a system of exclusion.

These next few weeks will determine a great deal about what direction we want things to go in our state, and how voting rights will be determined for the near future. We must continue the long fight of the franchise, of the still unrealized promise that we are a system by and for the people.

Organize, register and help those around you exercise their rights to vote.

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by Adam Kenworthy
Chair, Iowa Voting Rights Project
Posted 10/10/18

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