17 Iowa organizations have joined together to pursue legislation and a constitutional amendment to restore the vote for Iowans with felony convictions in their background.
 
Iowa has the harshest voting laws in the county, automatically stripping voting rights of any Iowan convicted of a felony. A group of Iowa organizations announced that they are forming a coalition that will work to change that through 1) a passage of a bill and 2) an amendment to the Iowa Constitution.
 
Currently, an Iowan convicted of a felony is automatically stripped of his or her right to vote. Only two other states, Kentucky and Florida, have equally harsh voting laws for people convicted of any felony. This despite the fact that many felonies have no impact on the suitability of an individual to vote. Felony charges include non-violent drug offenses and a number of non-violent thefts.
 
Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, said, “As we all head to the polls this November, it’s important to remember those who have been left behind. Voting rights are the foundation of citizenship. But more than 50,000 Iowans—a number that grows by the day—remain unable to vote, even though they have completed their sentences and have rejoined their communities.”
 

Read more at RestoreVotesIowa.com

“That means they cannot vote for members of their child’s school board; are unable to vote on local measures, or help choose our next president. Iowa’s current system is unfair, and leads to the systemic disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black Iowans, leaving them without a voice in our political process. It’s past time that our state corrected what is arguably the largest civil rights violation under our laws by ending felony disenfranchisement for good,” Bettis said.

Nearly 1 in 10 voting-age Black people in Iowa are currently barred from voting for life. That disenfranchisement wreaks terrible injustice on the African-American community in our state. If laws don't change, that number can be expected to increase to 1 in 4.

Bonnie Pitz, past president of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, said felony disenfranchisement laws have far-reaching consequences. One is with families. “Children do not learn citizenship only in a school setting, but by the actions and beliefs of their families. Disenfranchising those who have paid their debt to society means a whole generation of children will not see a parent fully participate in democracy and pass that value onto their children,” Pitz said.

Veterans are also disproportionately affected, Pitz said. “Many people with felonies are veterans, people who may deal with the traumas of service to our country by self-medicating with illicit drugs. It is a special tragedy when we strip the right to vote from an individual who has given so much of his or her life to defending democracy.”

It's possible to get the right to vote back through the office of Gov. Terry Branstad, but the process is arduous, intimidating, costs money, and many feel they need to retain a lawyer to help them.

MEMBERS OF THE GROWING COALITION CURRENTLY ARE:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa (ACLU of Iowa)

  • The Iowa-Nebraska NAACP

  • League of Women Voters of Iowa

  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa

  • Iowa CURE

  • Iowa Coalition 4 Juvenile Justice

  • St. Paul AME Church, Des Moines

  • Women at the Well

  • Trinity United Methodist Church

  • American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Immigrants Voice Program

  • Iowa CCI Action Fund

  • Iowa Justice Action Network

  • Las Americas Comunidad de Fe

  • Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness/Advocacy Network

  • Iowa Conference United Methodist Church Legislative Advocacy Team

  • Methodist Federation for Social Action Iowa

  • Iowa Catholic Conference

In January when the next Iowa legislative session starts, these groups will be urging legislators to pass a bill that states that all nonviolent crimes do not disqualify Iowa citizens from voting and that Iowans will get their right to vote back after they complete their jail or prison sentences, including any probation or parole. Importantly, the law should make clear that the right to vote is not contingent on the payment of outstanding court costs, fines, and fees, which are financial obligations that many are unable to pay.

Learn more at RestoreVotesIowa.com

This most recent push for changes in Iowa’s ex-felon voting law follows a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the matter. The Court considered a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of Iowa mom Kelli Griffin of Montrose, who at one point faced the possibility of prison after she voted. At the time, she had discharged a sentence for a felony-level nonviolent drug offense, and thought she could vote after completing probation. She ended up spending thousands of dollars for her legal defense and standing trial. She was acquitted by that local jury in just 45 minutes.

Then in an effort to change the laws more broadly so she and others could vote, she sued the state to clarify that under the Iowa constitution, she should never have been barred from voting. Unfortunately, in a narrow 4-3 decision, the Court denied her appeal, and upheld Iowa’s current statute that defines “infamous crime” as any offense that happens to be classified by the legislature as a felony, regardless of the nature of the offense itself.

In the decision, while the Court made clear that it and not the legislature would be the final arbiter of Iowa’s constitutional right to vote, it also indicated that the right itself was subject to potential evolution. Further, it pointed to the potential for it to look to any changes in the legislative definition in some future case in which it would have occasion to determine whether the right had evolved. Ultimately, though, because that proposition is so uncertain, a constitutional amendment is the surest and best way to end felony disenfranchisement for good in our state.

For that reason, in addition to working for passage of a bill, the coalition will also work for a Constitutional amendment to assure the right of those with felony convictions to vote. A constitutional amendment requires two successive Iowa General Assemblies to vote by simple majority to put the proposed amendment on the statewide ballot. The measure would then need to be approved by a simple majority of Iowa voters.

October 25, 2016

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