GOP ‘tough on crime’ messaging misses the point of voting restoration

GOP lawmakers are trying to tie automatic voting-rights restoration to paying of victim restitution. (Photo by Getty Images)

“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Republicans in the Iowa Statehouse have been channeling Robert Blake of the 1970s TV cop show, “Baretta,” every time a Democrat raises concerns about the inequities in their approach to voting-rights restoration for people who have served their sentences for felony charges.

“Behind every felony, there is a victim,” Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said during a House subcommittee. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, put it this way: “Don’t be a felon.”

That was his response when Democrats raised concerns during debate of Senate File 2348, which would refuse automatic restoration of voting rights to former offenders who had not yet fully paid restitution to crime victims. Those people would still have to go through the burdensome process of applying to the governor. The GOP bill also would carve out exceptions for certain crimes like homicide and sex abuse, for no other reason than lawmakers want to continue punishing people for these crimes even if they get out of prison.

If that’s the attitude, it’s puzzling why these GOP lawmakers are even bothering with voting rights restoration. They’re missing the entire point.

Now that legislators are going to be taking a 30-day hiatus from the Statehouse due to coronavirus, it’s a good time to reach out to them about this and other issues. Maybe common sense will prevail.

Republicans proposed the bill to roll back elements of a proposed constitutional amendment even before voters get to decide whether to approve it. The constitutional change, backed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, would automatically restore voting rights to anyone convicted of a felony who had served his or her time and had a payment plan in place for restitution and other costs related to their conviction.

House Republicans passed a resolution containing the broader constitutional amendment last year, but Senate Republicans have not and likely won’t unless their limitations become law first.  Reynolds and other advocates of the amendment, including some Democrats, are grudgingly accepting the bill because it appears necessary to keep the constitutional change moving.  If the Senate doesn’t pass the constitutional amendment this year, the lengthy process will have to start over next year. The restrictive law, however, can be changed or even repealed by a future Legislature, at least in theory.

Reynolds wants the constitutional amendment as part of an overall strategy to better integrate people coming out of prison into Iowa’s worker-hungry job market.  “Together, we can help put returning citizens on a path to redemption. We can help them become productive members of society, reduce recidivism, and make our communities a safer place,” Reynolds told lawmakers during her Condition of the State address in January.

Advocates say restoration of voting rights is an essential part of including formerly incarcerated people into their communities, giving them dignity that supports them as they seek employment and making it less likely they will commit new crimes.

Republicans argue that offenders should not get their rights back until they fully repay what’s owed to their victims.  Most Iowans would agree, I think, that repayment of crime victims should be a priority. But restoration of voting rights would not eliminate the obligation or even the motivation to keep making payments to victims. Supporters of the constitutional amendment say getting those voting rights back may make it more likely that victims will be paid — and some survivors say it even makes them feel safer.

Heather Strachan of NAMI, who spoke at a Senate subcommittee in February, said she’s an abuse survivor. But she wants the person who harmed her to have the right to vote. “As a victim of financial and psychological abuse, along with the other abuses that I have sustained, I will feel safer when my abuser has access to treatment and resources and is treated as a whole person with a voice in their own care in the community,” Strachan said. “They will have less motivation to reoffend or even to contact me.”

Former offenders say that while they have turned their lives around and have worked to keep up payments, they likely will never earn enough to completely settle their debt. “If this bill was passed, it would take me a lifetime to be able to vote,” Scott Clyce, a 30-year-old Des Moines man, told the subcommittee in February. “That’s very frustrating because this affects life as a whole.  I can’t move forward.”

Some Democrats have likened the restitution requirement to an unconstitutional poll tax. Dawson disagreed: “It’s not a poll tax.  It’s not a fee.  It’s a murder tax.  It’s a sexual assault tax.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that looks good on a campaign brochure, perhaps, but likely won’t impress a judge who has to decide whether it’s fair that a wealthy former offender could get rights back much quicker than a poor person who committed the same crime. That doesn’t sound much like equal protection under the constitution.

What we’re hearing from Republicans is that people with money should get to vote and people without should have known better. Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the dime.

And keep your eye on the sparrow.