Barriers remain for felon voting rights in Iowa, advocates say

By: - August 13, 2021 11:35 am

Racial justice advocates Betty Andrews, left, and Justyn Lewis appear on “Iowa Press” on Aug. 6, 2021. (Screenshot from Iowa PBS)

A year after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring felon voting rights, advocates said there are still various barriers to Iowans looking to restore their right to vote.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said in an interview with “Iowa Press” that formerly incarcerated individuals may be hesitant to deal with government systems. She said there has also been a lack of communication regarding how the executive order works.

“I think that, this is a huge part of it, there has not been enough strong promotion of the executive order and one of the things that we recently in a meeting with the governor asked her to do is to use her bully pulpit to make sure that people are aware that this is something that they can do in terms of the formerly incarcerated,” she said.

According to a report by the Marshall Project in June, 5,000 of the eligible formerly incarcerated Iowans have registered to vote out of the 35,000 to 45,000 eligible individuals. 

Des Moines Selma organizer Justyn Lewis said ID requirements also present barriers to former felons who want to attain their right to vote.

“A lot of people, we’ve got to be mindful, are fighting just to survive and going to get an ID and sitting in the DMV takes time from their family and their jobs,” he said. “So I think that may be a barrier.”

Reynolds’s executive order is not necessarily permanent and could be overturned by the next governor. Andrews said she hopes Iowa can pass a constitutional amendment to ensure the right to vote is available to the formerly incarcerated, but is unsure that the current Legislature is interested in passing an amendment. 

The Iowa Legislature also added a provision that if an amendment is passed that some additional requirements, like paying restitution, will be needed for felons, something Lewis opposes.

“I believe once you’re released, you have served your time and you have paid your debt to society,” he said. “So, effectively making those folks pay off those debts is still really incarcerating them outside of the penitentiary and jail cell. So, I think it’s important that once they are released they should be able to become citizens again and we should treat them like citizens. And this is truly a barrier.”

Iowa Legislature’s focus on race

Andrews and Lewis also discussed the bills in the Iowa House and Senate, like those that restricted teaching on certain “divisive topics” in classrooms and the “Back the Blue” act that increased penalties for protest-related crimes.

After seeing the “Back the Blue” legislation, Lewis said he encouraged legislators who were “looking for an issue that isn’t there” to speak with inner city organizations like Des Moines Selma. 

Regardless of the most recent legislative session, Andrews and Lewis said they are both hopeful about the state of race relations in Iowa. Andrews said the NAACP is realistic and knows that improving race relations in Iowa will take work.

“Our plan is to keep on pushing and educating and building relationships and making sure that we are focused on — protesting is important but also policy and moving to policy and that is the work that the NAACP continues to do,” she said. 

Lewis said the conversations that are continuing to happen regarding race in Iowa allow organizations to push forward their message and improve the state. 

“What I truly want to see is that we bring up these conversations, these divisive conversations, but talk about bias and where they come from and how they grow into prejudice and racism and hate,” he said. “That would make the difference.”

“Iowa Press” airs Friday night and Sunday on Iowa PBS.

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.