In one of her first significant breaks with her predecessor since being elected governor Nov. 6, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is hinting she may restore automatic voting rights to former felons. That would be wonderful news. Since former Gov. Terry Branstad, for whom Reynolds served as lieutenant governor, revoked automatic restoration of voting rights in 2011, Iowa is now in the company of only one other state, Kentucky, to not automatically restore former felons’ voting rights when they complete their punishment. Iowa requires them to apply to the governor to restore their citizenship rights after completing prison, parole and probation.
That harsh policy leaves at least 52,000 Iowans who completed felony sentences still unable to vote, according to the pro-criminal-justice reform Sentencing Project.
Denying people the vote robs them of a sense of ownership in and responsibility for their communities and country. It disproportionately hurts Iowa’s African-American population, which is over-represented in the criminal justice system — and not necessarily because of more lawbreaking. From police profiling and disparate arrests to tougher sentencing, black people are still paying a heavy price for America’s slave-owning past.
I got some perspective on the voting rights of people who ran afoul of the law during a stop in New York over Thanksgiving break. My childhood friend Deborah Hussey (I still call her by her childhood nickname, Dodie) has been volunteering with the organization registerNY.org, which works with partners in correctional and community settings to inform former felons about exercising their voting rights: This spring, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order under which he can give conditional pardons to former felons still on parole, restoring their voting rights. Previously, they were required to have completed parole, which could take years.
Jen Lackard founded registerNY.org as a way to engage men and women returning home after incarceration in civic affairs. This fall, she kicked off a pilot program using 20-plus volunteers to register detainees inside Westchester County Jail. The eligible inmates were there on misdemeanor convictions or awaiting trial but lacking bail money. Dodie helped educate them on ballot issues, candidates and voting procedures.
Having the right to vote while in jail is one thing; having the mechanisms to do so is another. In his 2011 Howard Law Journal article “Voting Behind Bars: An Argument for Voting by Prisoners,” Marc Mauer refers to “the de facto disenfranchisement of most of the 700,000 persons confined in local jails,” most awaiting trial. Though they technically have the right to vote, he wrote, “few jail inmates are ever permitted to, primarily because of bureaucratic obstacles.”
Westchester County Jail inmates must apply in writing for absentee ballots to the county board of elections, which sends those to the jail, the inmate’s family or Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where Lackard also runs the Prison Re-entry Ministry. Dodie and others hand-delivered the applications for ballots to inmates, and returned with them to fill out. Together, the volunteers helped more than 100 inmates complete the voting process.
Iowans in jail who are not felons and meet the basic voting requirements can also request absentee ballots, once they are registered to vote, through the county auditor’s office. But the motivation and ability to participate in the process require being up to speed on the candidates and issues, and believing your vote can make a difference. The volunteers in New York brought in candidates’ campaign literature and talked with inmates, who lack access to newspapers, about their various policies.
“What they hadn’t realized was that who wins has a decisive impact on what happens to them,” Dodie said. She points to a 2018 Harvard study of half a million defendants, which found Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar nonblack defendants. Seven judges were up for election in Westchester County, and the volunteers helped analyze their records of rulings before voting.
It’s hardly surprising, then, if Republican administrations aren’t in a hurry to have former felons who are black voting; they probably don’t expect to get their votes.
“A lot had never voted,” Dodie said of the inmates. Some were too young before. Some didn’t feel their voice mattered. “They had very little faith in politics.” Still, there was palpable excitement on seeing their names printed on official ballots, she said. “One man screwed up his ballot and broke into tears. They realized this was maybe the only empowerment they had.”
She called the experience moving and eye-opening both for inmates and volunteers, who returned after the elections with news clippings. One was on a Florida ballot measure that passed, restoring voting rights to former felons, something Reynolds has also referred to. An article Lackard brought impressed on the inmates the importance of every vote. It was about a Kentucky Statehouse election won by a single vote.
“For these inmates, the ability to cast a vote was a profound experience, in part because it gave them a voice,” Dodie said.
In issuing his executive order, New York’s governor noted a correlation between voting and reduced recidivism rates. America is alone in the world in disenfranchising so many of its citizens (6.1 million in 2016). We seem to take the view that, as Mauer put it, “Once a criminal, always a criminal.” And Iowa is an outlier among American states.
A society that doesn’t practice forgiveness or offer redemption doesn’t give its people room or incentive to learn from their mistakes. One that keeps its former lawbreakers from voting should expect little civic engagement from them in return. It’s time Iowa figured that out.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.