With the Iowa caucus just days away, some Iowans await determination on whether they will be able to participate. Iowa is the only state with a permanent ban on restoring voting rights to people formerly incarcerated for felonies. Voting rights can only be restored upon completing an application. The application also reinstates the right to hold public office, which people also lose upon incarceration for a felony.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is working to clear the backlog of restoration requests, and recently announced she expects to finish in time for the Feb. 3 caucus. It is estimated that over 50,000 Iowans are being prevented from voting due to the ban. That’s a significant number, enough to affect the outcome of the caucuses: In 2016, 171,517 people participated in the Iowa Democratic caucuses and 186,932 people participated in the Iowa Republican caucuses. As in many areas of the country, people of color are overrepresented in the incarcerated population in Iowa. Although Iowa is less than 4% Black, its state prison population is estimated at being around 25% Black.
Reynolds has said she supports a constitutional amendment that would restore rights to people formerly incarcerated for felonies. She has previously lobbied the Iowa legislature to pass such an amendment and plans to do so again. But the constitutional amendment process takes years—even after passing both houses of the state legislature, the amendment would need to go to the ballot for voters to weigh in.
While an executive order would have an immediate impact on those Iowans left out of the voting process in the meantime, Reynolds opposes using an executive order to re-enfranchise voters because of the potential for it to be undone by a successor.
In July 2005, Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring the right to vote to people formerly incarcerated for felonies, but Republican Governor Terry Branstandt later rescinded it. Last spring, Reynolds’ office streamlined the process to apply for restoration by making the application shorter and, in some cases, waiving the background check fee. Some advocates suggest this process is not enough. Iowa is the only state that requires formerly convicted persons to apply on an individual basis to have their rights restored. It is estimated that review of applications has taken between four and six months, and once rights are reinstated, the people still need to register to vote. People are able to register or change party affiliation on site.
In recent years, the Iowa caucus has come under scrutiny because of the lack of an alternative for those who are eligible to participate, but cannot be physically present during the designated caucus time. People who work evenings, lack child care or have limitations due to disability and/or mobility may not be able to participate in the process. Crucially, it also excludes people who have been charged with—but not convicted of—a crime who are being detained pre-trial. While people detained pre-trial do not lose their voting rights, they are effectively disenfranchised due to their confinement. And like others unable to be present for the causes, they have no recourse for participating at this stage of the electoral process.
In presidential primaries, success in Iowa has long been viewed as a sign of a candidate’s national electability, but the many barriers to participation in the caucus process raises questions about whether success in the state should continue to be used as a litmus test. While many states across the country have less-than-equitable practices related to voting rights and ensuring previously disenfranchised voters have access to the ballot box, Iowa now stands alone in its treatment of formerly incarcerated people in particular. Given the state’s status as an outlier on this issue—and many others—Americans must examine Iowa’s position in our electoral process through a critical lens of equity and justice, rather than simply accepting the status quo because things have been this way for a long time.