Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said Monday they were encouraged by discussions with Gov. Terry Branstad that they hope will lead to changes designed to make it easier for thousands of convicted Iowa felons to get their voting rights restored.
At the start of his current term in January 2011, Branstad issued an executive order rescinding action in July 2005 by former Gov. Tom Vilsack that established a process that gave voting rights and right to hold public office to felons and those who committed aggravated misdemeanors. Branstad’s executive order requires felons to complete a lengthy application process if they want their voting rights restored that includes requirements that they submit a current credit report, provide the address of the judge who sentenced them to prison and other information.
“We find that very problematic. We think that flies in the face of democracy, but we are very much hopeful to work with this governor,” said Jotaka Eaddy, a special assistant to the NAACP national president in Washington, D.C. “It is really not about politics. It is about a fundamental right to vote. It’s about civil and human rights and we hope that Iowa can remove itself from being so tied to the vestiges of Jim Crow. We know these laws were put into place many, many years ago, hundreds of years ago, for the sole purpose of disenfranchising people of color.”
Eaddy said about a dozen felons have managed to get their voting rights restored under the order that they would like to see repealed, but at a minimum significantly modified.
Arnold Woods Jr. of Des Moines, president of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the NAACP, said Iowa, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia are the only states “that are still denying voter rights for individuals unless they go through a bunch of hoops. We don’t think that’s necessary. We think if you’ve done your time, spent your time within the system, that when you get out, you should have the right to vote without going through major hoops.”
Woods said he was encouraged that the governor said felons who owed restitution would only have to be current on their payments rather than paid in full to be considered for getting their voting rights back.
Branstad told reporters during his weekly news conference Monday that the action he took in January 2011 only restored the policy that was in practice when he was governor from 1983 to 1999.
“We think it’s a very fair practice,” he said.
“We have a process where felons can earn their rights back,” the governor said. “We’ve tried to do what we can to expedite that process to make sure that somebody who has paid their dues to society, served their time, paid their fine, court costs and they’re current on their restitution requirements, they can get their rights back. But we also think that it’s fair to society that when somebody commits a crime like that, that they have to earn their rights back by having completed the sentence and the requirements of the sentence.”
However, Dedric Doolin, president of the Cedar Rapids branch and a national NAACP board member, said prison is supposed to be about rehabilitating people. “How do you rehabilitate somebody if you continue to have them marked as a prisoner for the rest of their life?” he asked in lobbying to streamline the application process for felons seeking to get their voting rights back.
Woods said NAACP officials also discussed concerns over the disparate percentage of African Americans in Iowa’s prison system and state hiring practices that have discriminated against minority applicants. He characterized the meeting with the governor as “very cordial.”
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