The last time Marlon Graham Sr. was allowed to vote, he cast his vote for Barack Obama while he was living in Minnesota.
But back in Des Moines where he’s lived most of his life, Graham is still waiting for his chance to make his voice heard on matters ranging from who should be president to who should sit on the local school board.
Graham, 42, is a father to 11 children, and some of them will soon turn 18 and be allowed to cast their first ballots.
“I don’t know everything about politics, but as a father, to be able to say to my kids, ‘Did you register to vote? Let’s go make this decision together on who is best for our country.’ To take that away from us — I would want people to know I overcame,” Graham said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order earlier this month that automatically restored voting rights to thousands of people convicted of felonies in Iowa.
The executive order excludes people who still need to finish their sentences, including those who are on parole and probation. The governor also won praise from voting rights advocates for leaving out a requirement, advocated by GOP lawmakers, that all restitution owed to crime victims be paid off before voting rights are automatically restored.
But unpaid restitution and court fees might still get in the way of would-be voters. The failure to pay off court fees and restitution, which are often tied to parole and probation requirements, could lead to the denial of an early release, said Theresa Wilson, chair of the Iowa State Bar Association criminal law section.
Early release decisions are subjective and are up to a judge or the Iowa Parole Board.
“It could be a possibility the failure to pay your financial obligation could be a factor whether or not you get an early discharge,” Wilson said.
While Graham said he was able to pay off his $300 in parole fees, there may be random costs such as previous room and board charges that he hasn’t fulfilled and doesn’t know whether he still owes.
He said he believes he’s paid his dues but the financial burden is difficult for people with felony convictions, particularly since employers may choose not to hire someone with a criminal background.
His parole isn’t set to end until 2025.
“I paid it slowly, but I got it paid off,” Graham said. “That stuff, they don’t care if you’re able to feed your family.”
Barriers to parole, probation and early release
Reynolds’ executive order restoring felon voting rights is “good news” that allows thousands of Iowans the ability to vote again, said Daniel Zeno, policy counsel for ACLU of Iowa.
A particularly important part was the lack of a restitution requirement. Des Moines Black Lives Matter and other criminal justice reform advocates pushed for Reynolds to exclude specific language regarding restitution, arguing that it’s similar to a “poll tax,” which was historically used to keep Black people from voting.
But while the order is an overall step in the right direction, more work can be done, Zeno said.
At least 19 states, including Iowa, do not allow people on parole or probation to vote until they finish their sentences. Nearly 40,000 Iowans are currently on probation, parole or another supervised sentence, according to the Department of Corrections.
But there are challenges to completing the requirements of probation or parole and getting a chance at an early release.
For example, one condition some judges require is having a job. But in the middle of COVID-19, where finding work is more difficult, that’s another struggle people with felonies have to overcome
“How do we make sure it isn’t just, we release people from incarceration, and essentially, they are still incarcerated because of probation and parole?” Zeno said.
Typically, a person is discharged from parole once their term equals the period of imprisonment, but the parole board can review their behavior and allow for an early release and an end to their sentence.
Since July 2019, the Iowa Board of Parole granted early release for 861 Iowans who were on parole, probation or a special sentence, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.
The majority of people who are on probation or parole have debt they owe to the courts, including restitution, fees or criminal penalties, according to the DOC.
While Reynolds’ executive order does not state people with felony convictions need to pay restitution, judges often include fees as a condition of someone’s parole.
This can create a barrier for someone who is on parole and wants to vote in an election, Wilson said.
The real problem sets in if the parole board views the failure to pay restitution as a reason not to grant someone early discharge, Wilson said.
“It is a barrier,” Wilson said. “It will make it harder for people to discharge early if they have not paid their financial obligations. They may not get the benefit of the executive order as greatly as they may have otherwise.”
And for those who may have served long sentences in prison and are not granted an early release, they may be waiting years for the right to vote again, said Michelle Heinz, executive director of Inside Out Reentry Community
“The parole exclusion is detrimental for people who have long sentences of parole,” Heinz said. “If you have 10 years of parole after you complete your sentence, the way the order is currently, you’re sitting and residing in the community for 10 years without the right to vote. It is challenging.”
‘You automatically assume I’m a bad guy’
Though Graham got into trouble in his earlier years and incurred drug charges, he said he is a changed man and wants people to know that just because he has felony convictions, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person who deserves fewer rights than others.
“You automatically assume I’m a bad guy,” Graham said. “I made bad decisions. I went to prison five times. But I got my GED. I just recently graduated college. I just got my degree in logistics, transportation and distribution.”
He has not applied for early release from parole, saying that he’s trying to focus all of his efforts on work and his kids at the moment.
And that’s not uncommon, Heinz said.
Once people are out of prison, their primary focus is trying to get their needs met, rather than jumping through hoops, such as regaining their voting rights.
Graham said he’s talked to several state senators to try to persuade them that people like him deserve the right to vote. While he could request a pardon from Reynolds, he said the issue is bigger than himself.
“I’ve changed my life over,” Graham said. “It’s kind of like basically our voice doesn’t matter, but we’re the ones affected by every vote.”