Guest op-ed from Hem Rizal, an educator who recently moved to Des Moines from South Dakota.
Gov. Reynolds has already promised that she’d sign an executive order to restore the voting rights of Iowans with felony convictions. Now is the perfect time to deliver on that promise.
Acting on this commitment immediately would give county auditors enough time to process registration and make changes to the information they provide all eligible Iowa voters. Not to forget, it takes time and effort to reach out to all new potential voters and inform them of their eligibility, as well as to educate them on the process they haven’t been a part of for some time.
But most importantly, restoration of the right to vote would be a perfect tribute to John Lewis, a civil rights giant who almost died fighting for people’s right to vote.
After Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in 2019 restoring voting rights of more than 140,000 Kentuckians, Iowa became the lone state to permanently ban ex-felons from voting. As the nation mourns the passing of civil rights icon John Lewis, we have a moral obligation to right that wrong and restore the voting rights of Iowans who’ve completed their sentences.
Currently, there are an estimated 60,000 Iowans who have served their time, including one in ten Black adults. These people have completed their sentences, as imposed on them by a court of law, but still cannot cast a ballot. It has been 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that John Lewis and his fellow activists fought for, and these types of deliberate, systemic disenfranchising of some vulnerable citizens is still prevalent, still rampant.
This must change.
Iowa Code 48A.6 disqualifies a person convicted of a felony from registering to vote and from voting. Amendment of this code must be ratified by two successive General Assemblies and approved by citizens of Iowa in a statewide vote. The earliest this can be achieved is by 2023.
This process would establish a permanent restoration of voting rights that could only be revoked through another constitutional amendment. However, when the Republicans had complete control of both chambers of the Iowa General Assembly and had a Republican governor on their side, they showed very little interest in addressing this.
Now that the Iowa State legislative session has adjourned for the year, there’s very little that they can do. The responsibility to restore the voting rights of people convicted of felonies now falls squarely on Gov. Kim Reyonolds.
Under the current system, those who have completed their sentences and would like their voting rights restored must apply to the governor’s office for individual clemency. The application itself is short, but this process is too slow and inefficient.
According to a source with the knowledge of this process, Reynolds has approved only 1,139 applications during her time as governor, including just 35 in her first year in office. While this is much more than 206 applications that former Governor Terry Branstad approved in more than 6 years, it’s still less than 2% of nearly 60,000 Iowans with prior felony convictions that are currently barred from voting.
The most efficient way to restore the voting rights is through an executive order. Executive orders have been used in the past to restore or deny voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions. Most notably, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack restored the voting rights of people with past felony convictions in 2005, only to be rescinded by Branstad in 2011. More than 115,000 Iowans regained their rights to vote in the years after Vilsack signed Executive Order 42. A similar executive order from Reynolds could bring similar results.
There’s also widespread local support for this issue. Just this week, Iowa State Association of County Auditors issued a letter urging the governor to sign a no-strings-attached executive order. Democrats on both chambers of the Iowa General Assembly have also issued statements saying that they would support an executive action. More than 100 faith leaders have already issued a letter to the Governor in support.
In a 2019 Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, two-thirds of Iowans said people convicted of felonies should regain their rights to vote after completing their sentences. Organizations like the NAACP, ACLU of Iowa, Des Moines Black Lives Matter, Saint Vincent De Paul, and the Iowa Poor People Campaign have been repeatedly urging the governor to act on this. By signing an executive order, Reynolds would simply be answering the demands of her constituents.
Last but not the least, this is a moral issue. Studies have consistently shown that the rate of recidivism is lower among ex-convicts who are reintegrated in our society and among those who vote. By permanently disenfranchising some vulnerable Iowans, the state is hindering their rehabilitation when it should be helping them get back to normalcy.
At a time in the history of this country when systemic racism and police brutality are being exposed, restoring the voting rights of people who have already served their sentences would be a small gesture toward reconciliation and healing.
It’d be a fitting tribute to John Lewis and a perfect way to commemorate his lifelong fight for the voting rights of all Americans.
by Hem Rizal
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