Move Iowa forward with voting rights

Iowa Supreme Court justices had their say, and now Iowans must decide if the moral ramifications of stripping voting rights from perpetrators of “infamous crimes” is acceptable.

The Iowa Constitution mandates those convicted of “infamous crimes” forfeit their right to vote. The Legislature linked “infamous crimes” to felonies, which is where state law is today — as well as where a majority of the Court believes we should stay.

So all Iowans convicted of felony crimes lose the right to vote unless they file for and receive a restoration from the Governor’s Office. That’s the law, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

But even if the current process aligns with the Constitution, we still need to decide if the practical results are what’s best for the state and its residents.

Gov. Terry Branstad attended an NAACP-organized Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities last summer where he announced the formation of the Governor’s Working Group on Justice Policy Reform. The purpose of the new working group, he said, was to research and make policy recommendations on criminal justice practices.

"I Voted" buttons in a bowl.
“I Voted” buttons in a bowl. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

“Over the past few years, I have been pleased to have regularly-scheduled meetings with the Iowa-Nebraska State Conference of Branches for the NAACP, where we have the opportunity to visit about challenges in Iowa’s justice and corrections systems and how we can work together to improve any potential disparities,” Branstad was quoted as saying in a news release circulated by his office.

The Governor’s Working Group submitted its final report in November that included recommendations on how to increase the diversity of jury pools and provide better diversion programs. Reading this report and others on Iowa’s justice system, it is clear that the Governor’s Office and the state agencies he leads have paid attention to the disturbing disparities that exist, and want to change them.

Should Iowa be a state in which a black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though usage rates for both races are the same? Should this be a state in which blacks are arrested nearly 10 times as often as other races?

Why does Iowa rank first in the nation, per capita, for the incarceration of black people?

Is it OK for nearly 10 percent of all the black men in Iowa to be housed in a prison? Do Iowa residents like being third in the nation in this statistic?

There is no pride in these statistics, and every reason to search for better options to change the landscape. And, in many ways, that is what the Branstad administration seems to be doing.

But there is one statistic that could be changed tomorrow by a simple stroke of Branstad’s pen.

Researchers at the Sentencing Project, according the Court’s recent ruling, estimate 25 percent of black men in the state cannot vote, even after completing their sentences. Researchers say that is more than triple the national rate.

The legality of the restoration process is no longer under scrutiny. But behaving legally and morally aren’t always the same thing.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 2, 2016. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette