We Iowans like to think of ourselves as the true occupants of middle America, the geographic and societal equivalent of Baby Bear’s porridge.
We are not as conservative as some sections of our country, nor as liberal as other sections. We don’t have the wealth that some regions do. We don’t have the poverty that is found elsewhere.
But clearly, Iowa is out of step with other states when it comes to a basic right — the right to vote in our elections.
This was brought home in dramatic fashion on Election Day when voters in Florida, by a staggering 65-35 percent margin, adopted a constitutional amendment that restores the voting rights for 1.4 million convicted felons in Florida who have completed their sentences.
Florida isn’t some liberal outpost. The state chose a Republican to be the new governor and threw out one of their United States senators, a Democrat, in favor of a Republican.
The decision on the constitutional amendment leaves just two states, Kentucky and Iowa, where convicted felons still permanently lose their right to vote unless the governor intervenes on behalf of individual felons and restores that person’s rights.
Florida’s soon-to-end practice is a carryover from the so-called Jim Crow laws enacted in the South after the Civil War to deal with blacks in discriminatory ways. In Iowa, prohibiting felons from voting has been a way for politicians to show they were tough on crime.
The issue is wrapped up in the myth that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republican candidates. But that belief had little effect on voters in Florida on Nov. 6.
It will take a constitutional amendment for Iowa to end the practice permanently. But Gov. Kim Reynolds could issue an executive order restoring felons’ voting rights while the Legislature begins the drawn-out process for amending Iowa’s constitution.
Last week, a legislative advisory board in Des Moines unanimously recommended that Iowa get in sync with other states that automatically restore felons’ voting rights. There are an estimated 52,000 convicted felons in Iowa who would be affected by such action.
For most of its history, Iowa has prohibited felons from voting. That changed after Tom Vilsack was elected governor in 1999. About 115,000 felons regained their voting rights after the Mount Pleasant Democrat issued an executive order that made restoration automatic.
When Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s office in 2011, he rescinded Vilsack’s order. The Republican decided felons need to finish their sentence and pay the court costs, restitution and fines the trial judge had imposed.
Branstad later simplified the process somewhat and said felons only needed to be current on those payments.
But in the past seven years, an average of only 23 felons per year have had their voting rights restored by Branstad and by Reynolds, state records show.
There are fundamental flaws with the process, and those flaws are why the Legislature and governor should set to work on amending Iowa’s constitution.
The biggest flaw is that the procedures put poor people at a disadvantage compared with Iowans with more substantial financial means who run afoul of the law.
Finding a job after serving time in prison is no picnic, so being able to stick with a plan for paying the court costs, restitution and fines is a struggle for many former inmates. That is less of a burden for former inmates from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds, activists say.
An official of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said recently that the application process and documentation required for regaining voting rights is daunting. “If they mess up, there are legal penalties,” said Veronica Lorson Fowler. “That’s how high the stakes are.”
Critics of automatically restoring voting rights like to point to the importance of inmates paying their so-called debt to society.
But Iowa does not take a similar get-tough view toward people whose misdeeds are dealt with in civil court proceedings, rather than criminal court. Those people are not stripped of their right to vote until they repay their victims, who might be customers, clients or investors.
We all know that people make mistakes, and some people make really stupid mistakes and get themselves arrested. But how much longer will Iowans continue to forever punish some of our friends, neighbors and relatives who made those mistakes?
For all that we like to talk about our Iowa values, where is that value called forgiveness?
by Randy Evans