Iowa Senate Bill Seeks to Give Ex-Felons Voting Rights

(IOWA) Should felons be able to vote in Iowa? Right now it's a confusing situation that some lawmakers want to change.

A bill that would restore full voting rights to ex-convicts is on its way to the senate where it appears Democrats are in favor and Republicans aren't.

In 2005 Former Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order giving ex-cons the right to vote as soon as they finished their sentence.

But, in 2011 Republican Governor Terry Branstad revoked that policy, saying felons would first need to pay all court ordered restitution to the victims of their crimes.

And since a disproportionate number of felons in Iowa are low-income African Americans, some people say the current policy disenfranchises minorities. Now, members of the Senate and House are torn about how these people should be treated when it comes to voting rights.

The U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder thinks states, including Iowa, should let ex-cons vote and any law making it difficult for them to participate in our democracy should be repealed.

He says 2.2 million black citizens - nearly 1 in 13 African American adults - are banned from voting because of these laws.

According to the Des Moines Register, in Iowa, blacks represent 3.1% of the population but 26% of the states prison population.

Iowa State Senator Bill Anderson says race shouldn't be a factor in deciding on voting rights for ex-felons.

"I don't know if I want to wade out into that water because in the committee that discussion is never raised by anyone. I don't think it is about disenfranchising anyone. I think it's about again those who are eligible to vote, are able to vote and those that shouldn't be voting, aren't voting."

But Flora Lee, the President of the Sioux City Chapter of the NAACP said the issue is there and shouldn't be ignored.

"I think if someone commits a crime I don't have a problem with them having consequences for that crime but also if they commit it, they do the time, where is the real rehabilitation instead of just recycling those folks," said Lee.

Right now, felons must complete their sentence and pay full restitution to the victims of their crimes before gaining their voting rights back.

Lee would argue ex-cons tend to have a tougher time paying those bills because getting a job is much harder to do. Iowa Representative Chris Hall agrees.

"I don't think that money should be a factor or income should be a factor of any sort for these people. If they've gone through the challenges of facing a difficult time in life, they've paid their dues and they're looking to try and become good, contributing members of society, we should try and give them that opportunity regardless of who they are, where they come from," said Rep. Hall.

But Senator Anderson says paying restitution is part of completing a sentence.

And while the bill seems to have a strong chance in the Senate, the republican run House may never even see it.

"My hope is that house republicans wouldn't stand in the way of something that provides citizens the right to vote, hopefully giving people a greater ability to participate in the process," said Rep. Hall.

Because Iowa's rules for letting felons vote changed under both governor Vilsack and Branstad,
Senator Anderson told Siouxland News he's concerned there's no uniform record of who got their voting rights restored and who didn't.

He hopes this bill creates a discussion about the need for better record-keeping.