Civil liberties advocates and a host of faith groups announced a new coalition Tuesday that will fight to ensure Iowans convicted of nonviolent felonies are not stripped of their right to vote. The coalition of 17 organizations will advocate for legislation and an eventual amendment to the Iowa Constitution to end a voting rights “crisis” in the state, said Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, at a press conference. Iowa’s system of disenfranchising felons even after they complete their sentences is among the harshest in the nation, she said. Disenfranchisement hits African-American communities particularly hard, fueled by disparities in the arrests of black Iowans compared with white residents, Bettis said. She cited an ACLU/Human Rights Watch report released earlier in October that found black Iowans are seven times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white Iowans — the second worst rate of disparity in the U.S. “This system is unjust,” Bettis said. “It leads to the systemic, disproportionate disenfranchisement of black Iowans, leaving them without a voice in our political process.”
Constance Todd, 70 years old and a diligent voter in elections local and national, did not know what to make of the letter she got from the local registrar this month. “You have been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude,” it read, apparently referring to a conviction for a series of bad checks from 20 years ago, “which disqualifies you from voting under Amendment 579 of the Constitution of Alabama.” A puzzled Ms. Todd gathered the official documents she keeps on hand, including the photo ID she had been required to obtain for voting in Alabama, and called her son, Timothy Lanier. He knew exactly what this was about. He knew, from a similar letter he had received himself. He also knew from his long days at the prison library learning about state laws by poring over the State Constitution. And, as it just so happened, Mr. Lanier is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on Monday in federal court in Alabama, claiming that the state law stripping the vote from any person “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude” — a law that has left more than 250,000 adults in the state ineligible to vote — is racially discriminatory, indefensibly vague and flagrantly unconstitutional.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe will announce Monday that he has restored voting rights to 13,000 felons on a case-by-case basis after Republicans and state Supreme Court justices last month stopped his more sweeping clemency effort. McAuliffe’s planned action, confirmed by two people with knowledge of it, comes about a month after the Supreme Court of Virginia invalidated an executive order the Democratic governor issued in April. With that order, McAuliffe restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences. McAuliffe said his original order would move Virginia away from a harsh lifetime disenfranchisement policy that hits African Americans particularly hard. Republicans, incensed that it covered violent and nonviolent offenders alike, said the move was really a bid to add Democrat-friendly voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential elections, when the governor’s close friend and political ally, Hillary Clinton, will be on the ballot.