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Vilsack to restore voting rights for felons

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Gov. Tom Vilsack signed the executive order Monday that restores voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences.

With his action, Vilsack said Iowa became the 46th state to automatically restore voting rights to felons.

"This is an important day for our country and for Iowa," Vilsack said in a statement. "Research shows that ex-offenders who vote are less-likely to re-offend and the restoration of voting rights is an important aspect of reintegrating offenders in society so that they become law-abiding and productive citizens."

Republicans have criticized Vilsack since he announced his intention to sign the order.

In the statement released Monday after he signed the order, Vilsack pointed out that President Bush signed similar legislation as governor of Texas in 1997.

"He also called for successful integration of offenders in his 2004 State of the Union address," Vilsack said of Bush in the statement.

An estimated 50,000 Iowans will have their rights restored in time for the next elections.

Under the Iowa Constitution, people convicted of felonies or aggravated misdemeanors lose their right to vote and hold public office. To again become eligible to vote, offenders have had to apply to the governor, who relies on recommendations from the Iowa Board of Parole and his legal staff.

In announcing his clemency plan on June 17, Vilsack, a Democrat, said he wanted to speed up the monthslong process and help felons -- a disproportionate number of whom are minorities -- rejoin society so they can become productive citizens.

The new pool of eligible voters will include the 836 offenders who were individually turned down by Vilsack since 1999, except for any who are still under state supervision or have been sent back to prison for new crimes. They include convicted child molesters, forgers, repeat drunken drivers, meth sellers, burglars and wife batterers who did their time and wanted their rights back.

A Des Moines Register analysis of denials made by Vilsack since July 2003 shows dozens of voting rights applications were rejected because felons still owed court fees or restitution to victims totaling nearly $500,000.

Other felons who committed sex crimes were informed they didn't qualify because of "the nature of your offense." Some were encouraged to reapply after more time had passed.

Still others received rejection letters from the governor's legal adviser citing their prior criminal record or new charges pending against them. One offender was labeled a "career criminal."

The most common reason given for denying voting rights requests was that applications were incomplete or missing required documents.

The hundreds of rejection letters don't apply now. In issuing Executive Order 42 on Independence Day, Vilsack has decided to grant a blanket restoration of voting rights to all felons who have completed their sentences -- including probation or parole.

The policy shift troubles Rich Knief, a Waterloo police sergeant and a leader of the Iowa State Police Association. The group has criticized the governor's sweeping clemency decision for short-circuiting a process that helped ensure restitution and court costs were paid.

"If it made sense a year ago, why doesn't it make sense now" to selectively deny restoration of rights to some felons? Knief asked.

Carlos Jayne, a criminal justice advocate from Des Moines, applauds the change. Felons who served their time shouldn't be forced to go through an application process that amounts to "a kind of resentencing," Jayne said.

Felons shouldn't continue to be punished by withholding their citizenship rights, and restitution requirements shouldn't become a form of poll tax, he said.

Vilsack's executive order establishes an automated process for routinely restoring the voting rights of new groups of felons when their sentences end. However, he still has the discretion to deny citizenship rights to someone who, for example, committed a heinous crime, said spokesman Matt Paul.

Although payment of restitution and court costs will no longer be a condition for having voting rights restored, Vilsack said felons are still expected to meet those obligations.

"I think that's a mistake," said former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. "With citizenship should go not just rights but also responsibility."

Vilsack argues that debts shouldn't be a barrier to voting.

"Do we disqualify people that haven't fully paid their child support? Do we disqualify people who haven't fully paid their Visa bill, who have filed bankruptcy, that owe money on civil judgments?" Vilsack said. "If the (reoffense) rate goes down because we give these people the right to vote and reconnect them to society, there's a greater chance restitution is going to get paid," he said.

Robert J. Ross Jr. of Davenport, a 55-year-old firearms felon battling cancer, had his request for voting rights denied by Vilsack last year because of unpaid court fees.

"I served in Vietnam, for my country. I would like my right to vote restored to feel like a complete American again," he wrote.

Told last week that he will have his rights restored after all, Ross said, "That's outstanding. I love the idea...I want to have a choice in who is running my country and who is running my life. I believe everybody should vote."

He said he has whittled his legal debts down to $212 but doesn't have much money to spare on the government disability payments he receives.

Terry Hein of Camanche, who received a 10-year suspended sentence and three years probation for illegal possession of dynamite. Hein, 53, said in his unsuccessful December 2002 citizenship rights application that voting is a right he cherishes.

"The Fourth of July is still my favorite holiday. I only buy American products if possible. I have owned a Harley-Davidson since 1970, and I support my unions, and I still hunt but with a crossbow," he said. "I have not voted in quite a few years, but still do value the right!"

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