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One Year After Executive Order Restored Voting Rights To Iowans With Felony Convictions, Most Haven't Registered To Vote

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks after signing an executive order granting convicted felons the right to vote during a signing ceremony, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order August 5, 2020, restoring voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions. One year later, most haven't registered to vote.

One year after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 35,000 to 45,000Iowans with past felony convictions, about 5,000 of those who previously had their registrations canceled because of a conviction have re-registered to vote. Voting rights advocates say the state should put more effort into reaching people to let them know they can vote.

A report from The Marshall Project in June put the number of re-registered voters at 5,000, and the Iowa Secretary of State’s office told IPR 4,127 people had re-registered as of January 29. Iowa SOS spokesperson Kevin Hall told IPR it would cost $160 to provide a more recent number.

According to Hall, 3,179 of the re-registered voters voted in the 2020 election.

Eric Harris of Iowa City was able to vote in 2020 after having his rights restored.

“It was the first time I voted in 20-plus years, and it felt really good,” Harris said. “And I’m going to continue to vote.”

Harris has been trying to encourage others with past felony convictions to vote. He plans to do more outreach in his neighborhood ahead of this fall’s local elections.

“I think that’d be a good start to get people to be aware that they can vote, and voting is a thing that every American should be able to do and should do,” Harris said.

Reynolds, a Republican, signed the executive order on August 5, 2020, removing Iowa’s status as the last state to permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions unless they appealed directly to the governor.

The order automatically restored voting rights to Iowans who have completed their sentences, including probation, parole and special sentences associated with sex offenses. People with murder or manslaughter convictions must apply to the governor for rights restoration.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, spent years pushing for the restoration of voting rights. She said she wants to see the number of newly eligible people registered to vote increase.

“It would be great to…wave the wand and all of them are registered, but certainly it’s going to take a lot more promotion and manpower to ensure that they are getting to the polls,” Andrews said.

She said it’s important to help people understand that they can vote once they’re done with probation or parole, and that they don’t have to pay off their fines and fees to be able to vote in Iowa.

Andrews has worked with state officials to update the voter registration form and online resources.

She said she has asked Reynolds to keep talking about the issue to raise awareness, and she believes state agencies should do more outreach to the tens of thousands of potential new voters.

“There should be an ongoing promotion of this new right just because it’s so new,” Andrews said. “And because there’s hesitancy, and there is concern in terms of trust with a system that may have had you confined for a number of years.”

The Department of Corrections sends a letter along with a person’s discharge papers that notifies them they have the right to vote. The DOC also has information on its website about voting rights, and those who aren’t sure if they can vote may call the department and ask.

“Those that answer the main phone line for the department and those working in community supervision across the state are able to assist those with questions in looking up their past convictions and discharge dates if they require assistance,” DOC spokesperson Cord Overton said.

Andrews said she thinks the DOC should also provide people leaving the system with a voter registration form and get them registered as soon as possible.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office created a website with information about voting rights restoration, restoreyourvote.iowa.gov.

Hall said the office mails voting information each general election year to tens of thousands of people who are eligible to vote but haven’t registered. He said the office is “strongly considering” sending that information every year.

The state has not mailed information to newly eligible voters that is specifically geared toward people with past felony convictions, nor has the state been trying to contact this group of potential voters. According to Hall, the DOC has the contact information for people who complete their sentences.

ACLU of Iowa Communications Director Veronica Fowler said the executive order was a “quantum leap forward,” but called the number of people registered in the past year “disappointingly small.”

“And we think it’s not because people aren’t interested in voting, as much as it is that there’s still a lot of confusion about who can vote,” Fowler said.

The ACLU of Iowa has also created a website to provide more details about voting rights.

Fowler said the state could always be doing more voter education, but the “ultimate solution” is not stripping people of their voting rights in the first place and making the rules less confusing.

“I feel like we have to overcome a perception that it is appropriate to punish people by stripping them of their voting rights,” Fowler said. “But if you look at any modern thinking about reform and … preventing recidivism, one of the best things you can do is to get people engaged in their community, to get them voting, to get them involved, to get them to run for local office.”

Harris of Iowa City said it can be difficult to discuss voting with people who were formerly incarcerated because they don’t always believe that their vote counts.

“They’ve been left out of the whole political spectrum for so long that they believe now that if they vote, well it didn’t matter in the past, so why should it matter now?” Harris said.

He said voting is important for helping people feel like they’re not left out of society.

“Some people, when they can’t vote, when they can’t do anything, they might be engaging in some activities that are not lawful,” Harris said. “And then you vote, and you see the results of the vote, and you feel like you’re a part of something.”

The next statewide elections are this fall when Iowans will have a chance to vote for city officials and school board members.

Click here for more information about how to register to vote.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that about 5,000 Iowans with felony convictions re-registered to vote after the executive order. This number represents people who had previously registered to vote, had their registration canceled because of a felony conviction, and then re-registered after the executive order. It does not represent the total number of of Iowans with felony convictions who have registered to vote since the executive order, as this story previously indicated.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter