Share this article

print logo

Iowa felons struggle to regain voting rights

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has made Iowa one of the most difficult states in the nation for felons to vote, with an executive order he issued last year already having disenfranchised thousands of people, a review by the Associated Press shows.

On the day he took office, Branstad signed an order reversing a six-year policy started under Democrat Tom Vilsack in which felons automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from state supervision. The move flew in the face of a nationwide trend to make voting easier for felons, making Iowa one of four states where felons must apply to the governor to have voting rights restored. Branstad's new process requires applicants to submit a credit report, a provision critics call inappropriate and unique among states.

Since then, 8,000 felons in Iowa have finished their prison sentences or been released from community supervision, but less than a dozen have successfully navigated the process of applying to get their citizenship rights back, according to public records obtained by the AP. Branstad's office has denied a handful of others because of incomplete paperwork or unpaid court costs.

"Wow -- that seems pretty low," said Rita Bettis, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which was posting a how-to guide online Sunday to help felons through a process that has confused some seasoned elections officials. Bettis said felons struggling to re-enter society may be less interested in voting than the general population because they have other concerns, but making it easier for them to do so is good public policy.

Henry Straight, who wants to serve on the town board in the tiny western Iowa community of Arthur, is among those whose paperwork wasn't complete. Straight can't vote or hold office because as a teenager in Wisconsin in the 1980s, he was convicted of stealing a pop machine and fleeing while on bond.

Straight spent a year on the effort and hired a lawyer for $500 to help. Yet he was notified by the Governor's Office last month that he hadn't submitted a full credit report, only a summary, or documentation showing he had paid off decades-old court costs.

"They make the process just about impossible," said Straight, 40, a truck driver. "I hired a lawyer to navigate it for me, and I still got rejected. Isn't that amazing?"

Iowa's process also includes a 31-question application that asks for information such as the address of the judge who handled the conviction. Felons also must supply a criminal history report, which takes weeks and costs $15. Then the review can take up to six months.

Critics say the process is too onerous and that allowing felons to vote helps them reintegrate into society. They say Iowa's process disenfranchises the poor, who don't have money to pay off debts, and blacks, who make up a disproportionate number of felons. They also point out that requiring a credit report is likely scaring off felons with financial problems.

Straight said he would try to obtain the missing documentation and resubmit his application.

Ironically, he said he would like to be able to vote for Branstad, calling the governor a proven leader.

"But if you can't vote," he said, "you are nobody."