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A Dark Day for Democracy in Iowa

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It took just a stroke of newly-elected Governor Terry Branstad's pen to turn the clock back on Iowans' voting rights by decades. Immediately upon taking office this month, Governor Branstad rushed to revoke Executive Order 42, a policy signed in 2005 by former Governor Tom Vilsack, which automatically restored voting rights to individuals with criminal convictions once they had completed their sentences. Now, Iowa has become one of just three states that permanently disenfranchise all citizens after a criminal conviction. Prior to Executive Order 42, Iowa disenfranchised adults at a rate twice the national average, and had the nation's highest rate of African-American disenfranchisement. Governor Branstad has resurrected one of the most punishing and discriminatory voting bans in the country.

Currently, 5.3 million American citizens are not allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction. As many as 4 million of these people live, work and raise families in our communities, but because of a conviction in their past they are still denied the right to vote. Nevertheless, in the last decade 23 states have either restored voting rights or eased the restoration process. Governor Branstad, however, just placed Iowa in the shrinking company of just two other states - Virginia and Kentucky - that permanently disenfranchise their citizens.

A broad coalition of Iowans representing Methodists, Catholics, Quakers, social workers, juvenile justice advocates, and the disabled wrote to the Governor before he took office, urging him to reconsider his campaign promise to revoke Executive Order 42. Perhaps most notably, two well-regarded national law enforcement organizations, the American Correctional Association and the American Probation and Parole Association, wrote personally to the Governor urging him to continue the policy of restoring voting rights. As the American Correctional Association, the oldest and largest association of correctional officers in the world, explained: restoring voting rights "encourages [ex-offenders] to lead law-abiding lives, thereby reducing recidivism."

Although Governor Branstad chose to ignore the views of the law enforcement and community advocates, both Republicans and Democrats understand the need to address reentry on a national scale. Just last week, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan announced the "Right on Crime Campaign," a conservative effort to support reentry and community-based rehabilitation. Although the group does not yet have an official position on voting, Gingrich and Nolan note that a more community-oriented criminal justice model achieves huge reductions in both budgetary cost and recidivism. There is no question that the right to vote is the very definition of having a full stake in one's community.

In addition to being good policy, restoring voting rights is an important civil rights issue. Prior to Executive Order 42, Iowa permanently denied the right to vote to nearly 40% of the African-American population in the state. Compounding this racial disparity is the fact that the only way to get one's right to vote back is through an application to the Governor - but only after having paid all fees and fines associated with a criminal conviction. The only difference between an ex-offender who is entitled to apply for clemency and one who is not? An ability to pay. The state NAACP held a press conference denouncing this modern-day poll tax and its disparate impact on African-Americans. Many who go through the criminal justice system return to the community saddled with multiple debts. It often takes years if not decades to pay off the fees and fines. Voting should never be contingent on one's wealth or ability to pay.

In spite of hearing many voices of experience and reason, Governor Branstad has taken a giant step backward for democracy and fairness. Fortunately, the principles of democracy are winning the broader war: more states than ever have dismantled these misguided and discriminatory laws. And the full-throated reaction to Governor Branstad's order shows that Iowa has a strong coalition of leaders, advocates and activists eager to convince current and future policy makers that it's never too late to advance the cause of democracy.