A divided Iowa Senate subcommittee approved a bill Thursday to make it easier for ex-convicts to regain their right to vote. Senate File 127 requires that upon discharge from certain criminal sentences, citizenship rights related to voting and holding public office must be restored. Under a policy enacted in 2005 by then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, former offenders automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from prison or parole. But when Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican returned to office in 2011 he signed an executive order that has made it much more difficult for ex-felons to vote. Branstad’s policy requires that all court-ordered restitution be paid to victims in full before they apply for a restoration of voting rights.The governor used his power of executive clemency to restore the right to vote and hold public office to 21 offenders who applied in 2013, which was a tiny fraction of the thousands of ex-offenders who have been freed from Iowa’s prisons in recent years.
Critics say Branstad’s policy discriminates against voting by African-Americans, who are disproportionately incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons. Blacks represent 3.1 percent of all Iowa residents, but they constitute about 26 percent of the state’s prison population.
During a subcommittee discussion Thursday, Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, a former parole officer said he never missed voting in any election since he cast a ballot for President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and he cherishes his right to vote.
“I really truly believe that these people should be restored to citizenship. It will make them feel whole again,”Dearden said.