Helton: Voter disenfranchisement should be abolished in Iowa



The gavel falls. The sentence is read. The convict is hauled off to serve her or his time. But what happens after someone “pays the debt to society?” For a lot of ex-felons in Iowa, that criminal record can ruin their chances to assimilate back into life outside of prison.

There’s a lot people go through once they’re released, not the least of which is the mental and social adjustments they have to make. It can also be extremely difficult to find good housing, steady employment, and other basic support systems necessary to be successful. Those are all major problems that I don’t have the space necessary to scratch the surface on reforms, but there is a simple solution we can make to improve the lives of ex-felons: Let them vote.

Iowa is one of 10 states in which people convicted of felonies may permanently lose their right to vote in elections. This is called disenfranchisement, and abolishing it in Iowa would be an excellent early step in improving our justice system.

It’s important to distinguish the difference between misdemeanors and felonies, as the first definition is reserved for less serious crimes such as vandalism or public intoxication. On the other hand, a small-time pot dealer can be sentenced to five years in prison, and that violation can have lifelong ramifications long after the sentence, parole, and probation is served.

Regardless of the severity of the crime, criminals who have completed their sentences have paid their debt to society. The goal should be to help them to re-enter society, and that starts with reinstating their fundamental rights, including voting. After all, ex-felons pay taxes just like the rest of us; they’re entitled to representation and voting rights just like the rest of us.

There’s also a massive racial element to the problem. According to data.iowa.gov, more than 25 percent of those serving in Iowa penitentiaries and correctional facilities are black, while fewer than 3 percent of Iowans are of the same race. This means that black Iowan are eight times more likely to be sent to prison, the vast majority of whom have been convicted of felonies. Nationwide, one in eight black men are ineligible to vote because their right to vote has been stripped from them.

As one of 10, Iowa is in the minority of states that do not give felons the right to vote. In most states — including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri — those who have served their time and completed their parole and probation are once again allow to cast their ballots. In other states — such as Illinois — voting rights are restored sooner, right after the sentence is served. Vermont and Maine go even further — felons may vote from prison.

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