Four months from now, on Nov. 3, those of us with the right to vote will elect the men and women we believe will lead our state and our country through this time of upheaval. The right to vote must be free of hurdles, which sadly, is not the case in Iowa.
The Iowa Legislature created rather than eliminated hurdles, passing a bill in the closing hours of this year’s truncated session that stifles absentee voting. Furthermore, legislators’ inaction this year prevented an effort to move forward with restoration of voting rights to individuals who have completed their sentences for felony convictions.
First, some background on the hurdles:
• Absentee voting: Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, exercising emergency powers, mailed applications for absentee ballots for the June 2 primary to all registered voters because of the COVID-19 pandemic, knowing that in-person voting could be risky. Registered voters responded enthusiastically, casting 418,000 absentee ballots, nearly 80 percent of all ballots cast. Iowa State Senator Roby Smith swiftly introduced a bill that would have banned the secretary of state from automatically mailing out ballot requests. He also sought to make a voter’s registration inactive after he or she missed a single general election. Instead, the Legislature approved a bill requiring the secretary of state to receive approval from the legislative council to exercise emergency powers over elections. Gov. Reynolds signed the bill into law without comment June 25. Why would the Iowa Legislature and the governor quash an incentive for Iowans to vote absentee in the midst of a pandemic that shows no signs of letting up soon?
• Felon voting rights: Governor Reynolds urged the Iowa Legislature in 2019 to initiate a process to amend the state constitution to grant voting rights to individuals who have completed sentences for felony convictions. The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of Iowa’s bishops, supported the effort “to create a path that imposes fewer barriers and is less arbitrary while protecting the interests of the people of the state.” Iowa remains the only state in the nation to impose a lifetime ban for those convicted of a felony.
Disappointingly, the effort stalled at the end of this year’s session. Lawmakers dropped the matter because Gov. Reynolds said she would restore voting rights through an executive order before the general election. However, some lawmakers also insist on payment of all restitution owed directly to victims as a prerequisite to restoration of voting rights. Such a requirement would create a huge hurdle. Few individuals convicted of felonies would be able to make full payment.
Radio Iowa reported June 16 that during a visit to Osage, Gov. Reynolds said efforts are underway on the executive order. “We’re working on that right now, sitting down with various groups, listening to what they think is important…” (https://tinyurl.com/y97sjx7q). Gov. Reynolds, thousands of Iowans’ voting rights are at stake.
Our church teaches that casting an informed vote is a right and duty. It is “a great way for us to have an impact on all aspects of public life,” Iowa’s bishops said in their 2018 letter, Faithful Citizenship for Iowa Catholics. The ICC acknowledged in a statement on restorative justice that those “who commit crimes violate the rights of others and disregard their responsibilities.… Restoring the right to those convicted of a felony who have satisfied their debt is a measure of mercy, but also dignity and justice.”
When Kentucky’s governor at the time restored voting rights for more than 170,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions in November 2015, America magazine said “… the restoration of voting rights sends a signal to ex-offenders that they are invited, and expected, to become law-abiding members of their community.”
Prison Legal News reported in April 2019 “Iowa’s electronic database of registered voters, I-VOTERS, contains the names of about 69,000 convicted felons who are barred from casting ballots” (https://tinyurl.com/ycva2ymz). We, faithful citizens, must help dismantle the hurdle that prevents individuals who have completed their sentences from voting by contacting Gov. Reynolds (governor.iowa.gov) and encouraging her to issue her executive order now.
We, faithful citizens of Iowa, should also contact our state representatives and senators (www.legis.iowa.gov) to express our displeasure over the removal of an incentive to cast absentee ballots, especially in a time of pandemic. Send a message: remove the hurdles to voting erected this year. Voting is as essential as daily prayer and Sunday worship.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
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