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Felon voting rights restoration creates 2,550 new voters in Iowa

Felon voting rights restoration creates 2,550 new voters in Iowa

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Activists at Iowa Capitol - felon voting rights

A group of banner-waving Iowans converged on the Statehouse rotunda in Des Moines in February 2020 to rally for legislation that would restore voting eligibility to tens of thousands of Iowans who cannot vote because of a felony conviction.

DES MOINES --  The voting rights of roughly 35,000 felons in Iowa who had completed their sentences were restored this summer by an executive order. But as of mid-October, only 2,550 — roughly 7% of those newly eligible — had registered to vote for this fall’s election, according to Iowa Secretary of State data.

For advocates who had been pressing for the automatic restoration of voting rights for Iowa felons who complete their sentences, that number represents a good start but also shows how much work remains.

“On the one hand, it’s great that over 2,500 people have become eligible to vote and have exercised that right by registering,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

However, Stringer said that number is also “disappointingly low.”

“We will continue to try to elevate this opportunity for folks,” Stringer said.

Chawn Yilmaz, a Cedar Rapids woman, said she is one of the 2,550 Iowans who registered to vote after having those rights restored by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ executive order, which automatically restored the voting rights of any felon in Iowa who had completed his or her sentence. Before the order, those individuals were required to petition the governor directly to have their voting rights restored. Iowa was the last state in the nation with that requirement.

Yilmaz said she was convicted of a felony in 2002 while living in California. The Iowa native was eligible to vote in California after completing her sentence — she said she voted there in the 2016 election — but could not vote in Iowa when she returned here in 2017.

Yilmaz planned to vote early and in-person on Tuesday afternoon with a friend.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait,” Yilmaz said Tuesday morning. “When I voted in 2016, I wore that ‘I voted’ button all around. I never took it off. It’s important to me.”

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa and Nebraska chapters of the NAACP, said stories like Yilmaz’s are a good start, but only a start.

“We celebrate that thousands of people are now able to exercise their right to vote and have voice as citizens,” Andrews said in an email. “(2,550) newly empowered voters in less than a month is an admirable start and could make a difference in an election. We are working to see these numbers rise.”

Advocates said one potential hurdle to felons registering to vote could be the confusing nature of the issue over recent years.

Reynolds’ executive order this summer was the latest tilt of a years-long see-saw: in 2005, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences, but in 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded that order.

Reynolds, a Republican and Branstad’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2017, broke from her predecessor and said she supports the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentences. But instead of issuing another executive order, she spent roughly a year and a half urging state lawmakers to begin the process of amending the state constitution. Reynolds said she preferred that method because it would be more permanent and not subject to the whims of ensuing governors.

Lawmakers in 2019 and 2020 began the lengthy process of amending the state constitution, but the process stalled when some — Senate Republicans, in particular — wanted to add requirements that felons pay all of their court fees and fines before being eligible.

After the Iowa Legislature failed to reach an agreement on the issue this year, Reynolds switched course, issuing her executive order on August 5.

“Gov. Reynolds will continue to advocate for a constitutional amendment regarding felon voting rights, which would be a permanent solution to this issue,” Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said in an email. “In the meantime, her office will continue to work with local county auditors and the Iowa Secretary of State’s office to help any individual looking to navigate this process and vote this year. We also continue to get a lot of positive feedback from individuals who are able to vote this year because of the executive order.”

Reynolds’ order restored the voting rights of roughly 35,000 individuals, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. An unknown portion of those could be non-Iowa residents, a spokesman for the office noted.

As of mid-October, 2,550 Iowans newly eligible as a result of the governor’s order had registered to vote, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Of those 2,550 newly registered voters: 811 registered as Democrats, 745 as Republicans, 53 as Libertarians, 34 with the Green Party, and a plurality — 907 — registered with no political party, according to the office.

“My goal is for every eligible Iowan to register to vote and participate in elections,” Sec. of State Paul Pate said in a statement. “I agree with Gov. Reynolds that Iowans who have served their time deserve a second chance and should be able to make their voices heard by voting. It’s good to see more than 2,500 have already stepped up and registered since early August.”

A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office encouraged any Iowans interested to visit restoreyourvote.iowa.gov for more information.

Stringer said the ACLU has similar information available at youcanvoteiowa.org.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the time by which 2,550 felons had registered to vote. It is mid-October.

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