Presidential candidates should address felon voting rights in Iowa

January 14, 2020 6:30 am

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It used to be that Florida, Kentucky and Iowa were the last states to strip people of their voting rights permanently but that changed in 2019. Amendment 4 went into effect after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in November 2018 to restore voting rights to people with felony records. Last month, newly-elected Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear restored the rights of 140,000 people with criminal records.

Now Iowa stands alone in disenfranchisement. And not one of the Democratic candidates have acknowledged that or called for it to change. They stomp across the state, failing to make an appeal about how voting rights should be restored. As two people with felony records, we say shame on each of them for not standing up for democracy — and not maximizing their chance of winning.

It’s not like the candidates haven’t had the chance to address this issue in Iowa. Each one has a press team that litters the inboxes of journalists with releases and statements. They’ve each met with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, the newspaper of record in Iowa and several of them have published op-eds in the same.

To be fair, five of six on the debate stage tonight have addressed the issue before in ways that weren’t specific to Iowa. Many candidates have opposed certain forms of felony disenfranchisement; only Sen. Bernie Sanders has supported the idea of completely banishing the practice.

But Iowa is in particularly dire situation now that warrants immediate attention.  An admittedly flawed list of restored voters has been scrapped and is being rebuilt by hand, hopefully by November. It’s guaranteed that restored voters will be kept from voting in the Feb. 3 caucuses through no fault of their own.  That’s in addition to people who are waiting for restoration — and the people who haven’t come close to regaining their rights at all.

In the Hawkeye State, though, all of this can be corrected with the sweep of a pen by Gov. Kim Reynolds. Iowa is one of a handful of states that vest the power to grant the franchise to the state’s top executive who can issue an order to restore voting rights.

But Reynolds prefers to amend the state constitution, a process that will take as long as three years.

Tonight at the debate, each Democratic candidate should condemn Reynolds’ decision to perpetuate this problem.

Taking a stand isn’t just a principled position for the contenders. To win, they need votes, which means they need voters.

The number of people who’ve been stripped of their rights has been reported to be about 52,000 but it’s likely much higher than that. We know that 151,215  Iowans had their rights restored between 2005 and 2015;  it’s unclear how many of those restorations were achieved when former Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a mass restoration and were therefore later reversed when Gov. Terry Branstad undid Vilsack’s progress. For reference, 171,109 people voted in the 2016 Democratic caucus; at its lowest, the number of disenfranchised people equals about a third of active voters. This population can swing an election.

How people like us, who have been incarcerated, are treated is noted by other voters.  Half of American adults have an immediate family member who is or was incarcerated; that includes Iowa. The way a candidate beholds people with felony records is an issue close to the hearts of half of caucusgoers.

Ending felony disenfranchisement may make the difference between becoming the nominee, or even president — or not.  Every Democratic candidate in Des Moines should insist on the restoration of every Iowan’s rights as if their chance of winning depends on it —  because it may.

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Chandra Bozelko
Chandra Bozelko

Chandra Bozelko is the founder of Nation Enfranchised, a political consulting firm that assists campaigns in how to court the vote of people who are involved with the justice system.