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Voting Rights Restoration Backlog Leaves Iowans With Felony Convictions Waiting

travis fugere
Natalie Krebs
Travis Fugere sits for a photo at his home in Waukee in December. He is one of tens of thousands of Iowans who can't vote because of a past felony conviction.

As the clock ticks down to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Travis Fugere of Waukee is waiting to find out if he will get to join in. He is one of tens of thousands of Iowans barred from voting because of a past felony conviction.

In November, Fugere applied to the governor to get his voting rights restored. But it’s not clear if he and other recent applicants will get approved in time to caucus on February 3.

“It feels like I don’t have a voice,” said Fugere, who hasn’t been allowed to vote for more than a decade. “I’m a taxpaying citizen, but what I think doesn’t get counted. I feel like, maybe, second class.”

A 2008 drug conviction landed Fugere in prison for a little less than two years. Now, he manages a fast food restaurant, he leads a recovery group at his church, and he has been sober for 12 years.

“I paid my dues. I served my time. My fines are paid,” Fugere said. “I should be a citizen again. And hopefully I will be soon.”

Iowa is the only state in the nation that still bans all people with felony convictions from voting forever, unless they appeal to Gov. Kim Reynolds. She supports restoring voting rights for felons and proposed amending the constitution to do that, but the effort stalled in the Iowa Senate last year.

The NAACP, the ACLU and Democrats have called on Reynolds, a Republican, to take executive action to restore voting rights immediately. Reynolds has declined, citing her predecessor’s reversal of a similar order.

“I believe that we need a permanent solution,” Reynolds said. “The going back and forth, I don’t think that helps anybody. It adds to the confusion.”

In the meantime, Reynolds has simplified the process for individuals to get their voting rights restored through her office. She also set a goal of approving the applications within one month of receiving them.

But that is not happening.

“What we have found is, it’s taking anywhere from four to six months,” said Ashley Caldwell, lead organizer with Restore Your Vote Iowa. The group is helping Iowans with felony convictions get their voting rights back.

“A lot of the people that are just now submitting—if the governor’s office continues to take as long as it has been—definitely won’t be restored by caucus time, but hopefully should be by the time of the election in November,” Caldwell said.

A backlog of applications at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, or DCI, is causing the longer wait times. The governor’s office sends voting rights applications to investigators to make sure they are accurate.

DCI Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt said the agency got a “huge influx” in 2019.

“In past years, we averaged, I believe, in the low sixties, as far as total applications for the entire calendar year,” Mortvedt said. “And this year, we’re well into the hundreds. So, I mean, the time commitment has been substantially increased as far as what it takes on our end. So the turnaround time has slowed down.”

Mortvedt said about five employees are involved in checking voting rights applications, and he gives final approval. But they all have other responsibilities. Mortvedt, for example, oversees a unit that investigates major crimes in the state.

“So it’s not that voting rights restoration clemencies is any one person’s full-time job,” Mortvedt said. “And with the influx that we’ve had this year, it probably almost could be.”

Reynolds’ office received 809 voting rights applications in 2019. According to a governor’s office spokesperson, Reynolds granted 292 of them and denied zero.  Applications from 330 former felons are pending, and the rest came from people who were already allowed to vote. 

In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, Reynolds said the increase shows the simplified application is working.

“We were doing fine for a while, but we are behind now. So I’m not going to say that we’re not,” Reynolds said. “But we’re doing everything we can, especially with an election coming up—we want to make sure that if they are entitled to vote, we give them that opportunity.”

But a recent move by the Department of Corrections, intended to help more people get their voting rights restored, could make the delays worse. Iowans leaving prison or supervision are now getting a mostly-complete voting rights application on their way out. That could add a few thousand more applicants in the months before the November election.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s going to do to us and the turnaround time for the applications,” Mortvedt said.

Reynolds rejected the idea that more applications from returning citizens would slow down the approval process.

But Ashley Caldwell of Restore Your Vote thinks the state needs to make some changes to handle more applications.

“A lot of people get really discouraged,” Caldwell said. “And some of them don’t think that their rights are going to be restored and that they’re just being ignored by the governor’s office because it’s taking so long and they haven’t heard anything.”

The backlog of applications is just one of several issues related to Iowa’s policy of banning all felons from voting.

The Des Moines Register found people with no felony convictions had their ballots wrongly rejected. And some Iowans who had their rights restored were still on the state’s flawed list of people who aren’t allowed to vote, though the secretary of state says he is working to fix that. Confusion is also an issue, because conflicting executive orders have caused some people who had their rights restored to believe they still can’t vote.

Fugere holds out hope that this will all change. But for now, he just wants to caucus and vote in 2020.

“I would be excited to, again,” he said.

Note: This story was corrected to show that there are 330 pending voting rights applications, according to the governor's office. 

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter