With the Iowa Legislature unwilling, at least for now, to back Gov. Kim Reynolds’ directive to automatically restore felon voting rights, what can be done to mitigate the state’s existing flawed process? Linn County Auditor Joel Miller had an idea that could work.
Reynolds has called on the Legislature to begin the lengthy journey of amending the Iowa Constitution. Specifically, she’s asked for Iowa to truly become a state of second chances by automatically restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Iowa now is one of only two states in the nation (Kentucky is the other) that permanently bars felons from the ballot box.
Lawmakers, at least for now, have refused.
Reynolds could, if she were willing, sign an executive order that automatically would restore voting rights. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack did so in 2005, only to have the initiative reversed by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011, his first order of business after taking office with Reynolds at his side as lieutenant governor. So, Reynolds has stated she won’t issue her own executive order, insisting that something more permanent should be put into place.
Fair enough, I guess, but continued inaction doesn’t address known flaws in the voting rolls. That is, Iowans with in-state criminal histories almost always are barred from the ballot box, but Iowans with convictions in other states don’t always appear on the ban list.
Further, Iowans with no criminal history — some charged but not convicted, others given deferred judgments, and a few with no court contact — have been mistakenly placed on the no-vote list and merged with the database used by all 99 county auditors that determines who can and can’t cast a ballot. Because there is no notification process in place, Iowans wrongly on the list typically aren’t aware until they try to vote. As an investigation by the Des Moines Register showed, voters have been disenfranchised.
One person who long has been critical of such flaws in existing law is Linn County’s Miller. And, as is often his way, Miller set out to do something about it.
One caveat made by the Reynolds administration while waiting on the Legislature to act was a revamping or “streamlining” of the restoration process. Forms have been shortened to a single page that requests far less onerous information, and there no longer is a $15 fee linked to a background check. Given these changes, Miller recently mailed letters to about 3,000 Linn County residents with previous felony convictions who may now be eligible to apply.
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The letters, according to Gazette reporting, included the streamlined application and an envelope addressed to the governor’s office.
Return readers of this column know I’ve been critical of other unilateral decisions made by Miller. Although well-intentioned and aligned with his office, some past initiatives backfired — such as the poorly marked sample ballots sent last fall that some voters mistook for the real thing. Adding to the controversy was that fact that Miller was part of a competitive campaign for supervisor at the time.
But it’s difficult to see a downside to Miller’s latest mailer. Not only will former felons on the state’s voting list be alerted to the new streamlined form, but there’s a possibility that some Linn County residents mistakenly placed in the database may receive early notice and be able to act before Election Day. While there is little that can be done at the county level to address the inherent discrimination regarding crimes committed in other states, Miller’s mailer addresses an ongoing gap in the process.
Let’s hope other county auditors take note and launch similar initiatives.
l Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org