Moral Low Ground

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In Iowa, Ex-Felons Must Submit Credit Reports to Regain Voting Rights Thanks to Republican Governor

Iowa’s Republican governor has made his one of the toughest states in the nation for ex-felons to regain their voting rights, requiring them to submit credit reports as part of an onerous process through which they can technically restore their citizenship privileges.

But since signing an executive order the day he took office that reversed the previous Democratic governor’s policy of automatically granting ex-felons their voting rights upon their release from prison, Gov. Terry Branstad has effectively disenfranchised thousands of Iowans who’ve paid their debt to society.

Of the 8,000 felons who have finished their prison sentences or have been released from community supervision, less than a dozen have successfully regained their voting rights, the Associated Press reports.

The AP tells the story of Henry Straight, a 40-year-old truck driver who was convicted in the 1980s while a teenager of stealing a soft drink vending machine and fleeing while on bond. Straight now wants to serve on the town council in Arthur but cannot vote or hold officer because of his conviction. He hired a lawyer for $500 to help him navigate the harrowing process of restoring his rights. But the governor’s office told him that because he hadn’t submitted a full credit report, he was ineligible for reinstitution.

“They make the process just about impossible,” Straight the AP.

Included in the Iowa process is a 31-question application requiring such minute details as the judge’s address. A criminal history report is mandatory, which costs $15. The subsequent review process can take as long as six months.

Critics contend that Iowa’s burdensome requirements disenfranchise the poor, who are unable to repay their debts, as well as blacks, who comprise a disproportionate percentage of convicted felons. Felons also tend to be younger that the general population. Poor, black and young– this means more likely to vote Democrat, raising the distinct possibility that Gov. Branstad is engaging in a deliberate effort to disenfranchise people who are more likely to vote against him.

According to Secretary of State Matt Schultz, Iowa’s top election official (and a Republican), Branstad was urged to reinstate the application process– discontinued by his Democrat predecessor Tom Vilsack in 2005– in order to “send a message to Iowa’s voters that their voting privilege is sacred and will not be compromised.”

Branstad declared that the process “is an important and necessary aspect of an offender’s process of reintegration.”

Yet the trend nationwide is towards making it easier for ex-felons to regain their full citizenship rights. Fully 38 states allow most felons to automatically regain their voting rights upon release from prison. Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote even while behind bars. Only three other states– Florida, Kentucky and Virginia– require ex-felons to apply to their governors; none require credit reports.

Again, such a requirement is seen by critics as a means of deterring ex-felons with financial problems (which is many of them) from attempting to regain their voting rights.

Tellingly, Henry Straight says that he is still trying to obtain the necessary documents to have his voting rights restored and that if he could, he’d vote for Branstad even though the governor is responsible for his disenfranchisement. He calls the governor a “proven leader.”

“But if you can’t vote,” he told the AP, “you are nobody.”

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