Iowans take considerable pleasure in enumerating the various ways our state stands apart from the other 49 states — beyond our endangered first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
For many years, we pointed with pride to the fact that Iowa’s high school graduation rate was top in the United States.
We like to remind friends from other states that Iowa farmers produce more corn, hogs and eggs than farmers anywhere else.
Sports fans beamed over the University of Iowa wrestling team’s success from 1978 to 1986, when the Hawkeyes won the NCAA title a record nine consecutive times. That is a longer string of NCAA team championships than any other Division I university in any other sport.
But there’s another category where Iowa stands atop the 50 states, and this one should embarrass us instead of filling us with pride.
Iowa now has the distinction of being the only state in the Union that permanently bars convicted felons from ever again participating in an election unless they can persuade the governor to restore their right to vote. This requirement has left an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Iowans unable to vote.
Gov. Kim Reynolds deserves praise for trying to remove this blemish on Iowa’s good name. She has asked the Legislature to begin the process of amending the state’s constitution to automatically restore felons’ right to vote once they complete their prison terms.
But Republicans in the Iowa Senate stopped the constitutional amendment last year. This year, senators tossed a monkey wrench into the amendment process with a bill that would require felons to pay in full any court-ordered restitution to their crime victims before their voting rights could be restored.
That’s a tougher burden than the current requirements for reinstatement of voting rights. Now, felons must show Gov. Reynolds they have finished their prison terms and are on track with payments to cover the court fees and victim restitution they owe.
The restitution requirements in Senate File 2348 are misguided.
The right to vote should not have a price tag hanging from it. Congress, and the voters, ripped off a similar price tag nationally 60 years ago when the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. That amendment ended the poll tax as a back-door way of disenfranchising poor people and people of color.
Whether Iowa senators care to admit it or not, requiring full payment of restitution before a felon can vote again creates a bigger burden for lower-income people to meet than higher-income people.
In the past two years in Iowa, the average restitution debt of Iowa prisoners has totaled about $11,600. That’s a significant amount, because studies have shown that many people in the criminal justice system have incomes below the poverty level.
Arthur Rizer, an official of the R Street Institute, a public policy research organization in Washington, D.C., wrote recently in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “Eligibility to vote is no more related to a person’s ability to pay off a court debt than it is their ability to pay off student loan or credit card debt.”
He added: “Making voting eligibility contingent on the repayment of legal debts will create two classes of people with past criminal convictions: Those who can afford to pay (and therefore vote) and those who cannot. This kind of wealth discrimination is anathema to fundamental American principles of fairness and equality, not to mention a violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
No one wants to forget about crime victims in this discussion. No one wants to minimize the effects of crime on them. And no one wants to be perceived as soft on crime.
But senators have presented no evidence to show that felons are more likely to pay the restitution they owe to their victims, if that is what it takes to regain the right to vote, or that they will pay the restitution sooner.
A much bigger factor in paying this debt is income — whether the felon can find a job after leaving prison that pays enough so they can feed, clothe and shelter their family and have money left to chip away at their debt.
There are thousands of former prison inmates in Iowa who are living and working in our communities. They are supporting their families, paying their taxes and trying to get their lives back on track.
They deserve to be able to vote — just as felons in 49 other states are able to vote.
By Randy Evans