In August, Iowa made history by being the last state in the U.S. to restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions. But it wasn’t until October that the number of ex-offenders benefiting from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ executive order was released and the details published.
In mid-October, Rep. Ras Smith learned of the 35,000 ex-offenders who regained the franchise and the 2,500 or so who had registered by accident—that is, after reading an article in one of the newspapers, despite having requested the data much earlier. He then followed up with the Secretary of State’s office, curious to know how the papers were able publish these numbers when, he, the ACLU, and others had been requesting it.
The Secretary of State’s office informed him that they didn’t provide that data for publication. The Department of Corrections must have.
“I was able to get the roughly 35,000 from the Secretary of State’s office,” said Smith. “Just names—no address, no phone numbers. Then, from the Department of Corrections, I was able to get over 64,000 names of individuals who have been granted their right to vote from 2005 all the way to 2020. This was names and counties.”
Smith went back to 2005 because that was the year Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack had issued an executive order returning the franchise to ex-felons, provided they were off probation and had paid all their restitution. In 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad came along and undid that executive order, once again denying ex-felons the right to vote in Iowa. Then, in 2020, Republican Gov. Reynolds enacted an executive order that allows nearly all them to vote even if they haven’t paid their restitution or fees, as long as they are no longer on probation, parole or any special sentencing.
So Smith took the 64,000 names and filtered the list by Black Hawk County, resulting in approximately 5,000 names. He went through the names and called the 12 or so he knew, informing them of their new right to vote.
Getting the list of names so late and then having no way to contact those on the list rendered it almost useless.
“So for the timeframe that we had,” said Smith, “the goal was to get out into the communities that had the highest percentages—Scott County, Polk County, Black Hawk County, Johnson County—and do what we could to get it in the media so maybe they see it on their nightly news or somebody’s cousin or sister or brother or aunt or grandmother is watching the news and, oh, lightbulb, ‘let me call so-and-so and see if they’ve voted.’”
The list of names was only one barrier to getting the word out in a timely manner. Smith stated that due to the lack of information early on, he’d instructed his campaign to hold off until they were clear on the details because they didn’t want to misguide people. Information and an online toolkit to help ex-offenders determine if they could vote was finally available on the Secretary of State’s web site in early October.
This may have been too late for people who needed to register to vote.
“When you take into account some of these people would have had to have gotten a driver’s license during COVID,” said Smith, “and book an appointment, which could be weeks out, would be a barrier.”
Yet another barrier was no real push or extensive paid advertising to let people know about the franchise or the toolkit.
“If you’re somebody who’s been convicted of a felony in Iowa, let’s say 12 years ago,” said Smith, “you’ve now seen three different iterations of ‘I can vote, I can’t vote, I can vote, I can’t vote.’ So that sense of hesitancy has a lot of people unsure because for them, to vote is not worth risking their freedom [since voter fraud is a felony].”
Adonnis Hill is one of those who wasn’t sure he had the franchise back. Rev. Dr. Belinda Creighton-Smith had sent a mass text informing him of his newly restored franchise but he was hesitant for the reasons Rep. Smith stated.
Hill has had a rough life. He lost a son to SIDS. In 2006, his 13-year old daughter, Donnisha Hill, was brutally murdered, which led him to fight for tougher laws for pedophiles. Then, in 2012, two months after the lawsuit for Donnisha’s murder was settled, Hill stated he was falsely charged with felonies.
“They basically said take this plea or you’ll do 17 ½ years mandatory,” said Hill. “My kids need me—I feel like I’m a pretty good dad and so I chose to take the plea to domestic assault and burglary second degree and I went away for 13 months.”
For Hill, who is self-employed, pays his taxes, has served in the military, and was at the state capital fighting for rights, having the right to vote taken away was pretty upsetting. So, when he found out he really could vote, he said, “I wanted to take a picture but I was like, that’s my moment. A moment, a triumph to get back in the race to vote for our elected officials … It feels good because the feeling of feeling like you matter is a great feeling. It’s like being restored to citizenship, our right to citizenship.”
Hill also feels like the right to vote for ex-offenders is motivational—it motivates them get more involved in politics and know what’s going on in their communities so the next time the elections come around, they’ll be informed of the people and initiatives on the ballot that affect them.
Dennis Henderson agrees with the importance of ex-offenders voting for issues that affect them.
Henderson got caught up in drugs and ended up doing 25 years in prison. When he got out, with the help of Urban Dreams and State Representative Wayne Ford, Henderson got on his feet and landed a job at Broadlawns, where he’s been the TEACH and TECH Program Coordinator for four years.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to vote to ex-felons,” said Henderson at the Brown & Black Forums of America’s election day event. “The disproportionate penalty for crack cocaine and powder cocaine was a product of legislation. The disproportionate effect that marijuana laws has on the brown and Black population were also a product of legislation. The 24 laws that have nothing to do with driving that can get your license tooken [sic] is a product of legislation. So it’s clear to me why supporting that felons get the right to vote.”
Going forward, all agree that an effort to get ex-offenders registered to vote should be a priority, not an afterthought.
For Hill, that means something as simple as sending a letter to each ex-offender stating voting rights have been restored and including instructions on how to vote or where to go for more information. Additionally, individual efforts to spread the word can be done with bumper stickers or t-shirts.
For Smith, that means continuing to press Gov. Reynolds for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing ex-offenders the right to vote, along with the government informing them of the right. While he feels that their outreach efforts to register voters were somewhat successful even with the lateness, the efforts need to be year round.
“At our Juneteenth celebrations, at our Irish Festival celebrations, even though it takes place outside of an election year, why would we not have a voter registration booth there all the time? … At a lot of our day to day things that we typically do, let’s include voter registration to make it more habitual, to make it more comfortable, more normal.”
by Rachelle Chase
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