Nearly a year after a legal defeat, voting-rights advocates are continuing their fight to end Iowa’s lifetime voting ban for felons.
In Iowa, along with Kentucky and Florida, people with felony convictions are constitutionally prohibited from voting, but can appeal to the governor after serving their sentence.
Mike Cervantes is executive director of InsideOut Reentry, an organization serving individuals returning from incarceration. He says there are many challenges as one reintegrates into society after serving time, and the inability to cast a ballot makes it harder to feel like part of the community.
“The biggest part of our democracy is just having a say – whether it’s for president or who’s running the school board,” says Cervantes. “We like to think of it as the simplest way to welcome someone back. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t put anyone in any danger.”
He adds there’s evidence that people who return from prison and become voters have lower recidivism rates.
InsideOut Reentry is among nearly two dozen organizations with “Restore Iowa Votes,” a coalition that supports legislation and a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to Iowans convicted of felonies. More than 50,000 Iowans are said to be unable to vote due to a prior felony.
Cervantes notes Iowa’s laws on the matter have been difficult to follow. In 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack provided automatic restoration of voting rights to people who completed their sentences for felony convictions.
But in 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad reinstated procedures for people with felony convictions to apply to have their voting rights restored. Last June, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the state’s felony voting ban.
Cervantes contends the process of appealing to the governor is stressful, involving proof of payments for court costs and a criminal background check.
“That process is very difficult for many people,” he explains. “In fact, of the thousands of people who become eligible every year, maybe 15 or 20 a year are able to complete the application and get their voting rights back.”
Last year, the governor reduced the number of application questions from 29 to 13.
Meanwhile, Florida’s Supreme Court recently approved language for a 2018 ballot initiative that, if approved, would restore voting rights to felons.