What’s the harm in felons voting?

Convicted felons in Iowa, after they serve their prison time, have to jump through many hoops to regain their rights to possess weapons and to vote.

I can understand the care given to make sure a felon is rehabilitated enough to be entrusted with a gun.

But what is the danger to society if he or she votes?

Generally there is no candidate on the ballot from the Prison Party, or the Drug Party, or even the White Collar Crime Party. Felons, after completing their prison sentences, are probably going to vote the same way they did (if they did) before going to prison. Neither political party has a lock on the criminal vote.

But making voting difficult for felons does discriminate other ways. That’s on the basis of race and income.

It hasn’t always been this hard for Iowa felons to vote.

Back in 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed an executive order that restored the voting franchise to felons after they complete their sentences. About 80,000 Iowans regained the right to vote through that order.

Nineteen percent of those were black, even though only two percent of Iowa’s population is black.

It’s a well-documented fact that black people are more likely to be incarcerated than white people for the same crime. Whites are more likely than blacks to receive suspended or deferred sentences, or probation.

So denying the vote to felons, or setting the restorative bar so high as to make it nearly impossible to achieve, truly discriminates against people of color in Iowa.

After Terry Branstad was elected governor in 2010, he erased Vilsack’s executive order and returned Iowa to its status as one of only three states that permanently disenfranchise felons.

Their voting rights can be restored only by applying to the governor for that privilege, and the number who successfully pass that test is pitifully small — fewer than a couple dozen per year.

Branstad’s order was challenged by voting rights and civil rights organizations, and the case worked its way up to the Iowa Supreme Court. That court on June 30, 2016, ruled 4-3 that Branstad was within his authority to deny felons the right to vote.

The court based its ruling on the Iowa Constitution.

Article II, Section 5 of that document reads as follows: “No idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector.”

The four-member majority of the Iowa Supreme Court determined that based on a law adopted in 1994, “infamous crime” means any felony.

“This is the community standard expressed by our legislature and is consistent with the basic standard we have used over the years,” the court’s majority stated.

In Iowa, a felon must complete his or her required prison time, pay all court costs, fees and restitutions, and complete successfully a 19-question application form before finally being able to submit a request to the governor. For low-income felons, payment of everything owed to the court system, court-appointed attorneys and any victims is usually too steep a hill.

At this point it appears that absent an amendment to the Iowa Constitution, convicted felons will remain unable to participate in the electoral process.

That’s probably OK with many Republicans, and not so OK with Democrats, because since most black people vote Democratic, restoration of felons’ voting rights is somewhat likely to benefit Democratic candidates and work against Republican ones.

But from a strictly political standpoint, it shouldn’t make that much difference. A large majority of felons are white, and to my knowledge there’s no accurate study of how they might vote if they were allowed to do so.

One of the dissenting Iowa Supreme Court judges in the 2016 case called the court’s majority ruling “anachronistic.” The fact that nearly all other states grant felons the right to vote once their sentences are served makes that word ring true.

To amend the Iowa Constitution requires the adoption of the proposal by two successive sessions of the Legislature and then approval by the voters in a referendum.

It’s time to start that process on the matter of felons’ voting rights.

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