IOWA CITY, Iowa – Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has made Iowa one of the most difficult states in the nation for felons to vote, with an executive order he issued last year already having disenfranchised thousands of people, a review by The Associated Press shows.
On the day he took office, Branstad signed an order reversing a six-year policy started under Democrat Tom Vilsack in which felons automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from state supervision. The move flew in the face of a nationwide trend to make voting easier for felons, making Iowa one of four states where felons must apply to the governor to have voting rights restored. Branstad's new process requires applicants to submit a credit report, a provision critics call inappropriate and unique among states.
Since then, 8,000 felons in Iowa have finished their prison sentences or been released from community supervision, but less than a dozen have successfully navigated the process of applying to get their citizenship rights back, according to public records obtained by the AP. Branstad's office has denied a handful of others because of incomplete paperwork or unpaid court costs.
"Wow — that seems pretty low," said Rita Bettis, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which was posting a how-to guide online Sunday to help felons through a process that has confused some seasoned elections officials. Bettis said felons struggling to re-enter society may be less interested in voting than the general population because they have other concerns, but making it easier for them to do so is good public policy.
Henry Straight, who wants to serve on the town council in the tiny western Iowa community of Arthur, is among those whose paperwork wasn't complete. Straight can't vote or hold office because as a teenager in Wisconsin in the 1980s, he was convicted of stealing a pop machine and fleeing while on bond.
Straight spent a year on the effort and hired a lawyer for $500 to help. Yet he was notified by the governor's office last month that he hadn't submitted a full credit report, only a summary, or documentation showing he had paid off decades-old court costs.
"They make the process just about impossible," said Straight, 40, a truck driver. "I hired a lawyer to navigate it for me and I still got rejected. Isn't that amazing?"
Iowa's process also includes a 31-question application that asks for information such as the address of the judge who handled the conviction. Felons also must supply a criminal history report, which takes weeks and costs $15. Then the review can take up to six months.
Critics say the process is too onerous and that allowing felons to vote helps them reintegrate into society. They say Iowa's process disenfranchises the poor, who don't have money to pay off debts, and blacks, who make up a disproportionate number of felons. They also point out that requiring a credit report is likely scaring off felons with financial problems.
"Iowa is in a dwindling minority of extremely restrictive states," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national group that advocates for policies to make it easier for felons to vote. For felons, Branstad is "making your right to vote contingent on your financial abilities."
The trend in the U.S. since 1996 has been to expand felon voting rights and make it easier to have them restored, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kentucky, Florida and Virginia are the other states that require felons to apply to the governor, but they don't require a credit report. Thirty-eight states allow most felons to automatically regain their voting rights once they complete their sentences, according to the report. Maine and Vermont never take away voting rights. Others require felons to wait a certain amount of time before becoming eligible.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said Iowa's policy helps ensure felons pay restitution to victims and that he expected more to apply over time. He said the credit report helps officials verify those debts are paid. He noted the application is two pages long and available online with a "frequently asked questions" document.
Still, some felons have given up. Henry Straight's cousin, Richard Straight, 65, said he has struggled with addiction to drugs and crime. He said he would like to vote in the upcoming presidential election, but it's not worth the fight.
"I've only got a few years left of living. I might as well kick back and relax and live my life instead of fighting the system like that," he said.
Iowa had long been one of the most restrictive states for felons' voting rights. When Branstad served as governor from 1982 to 1998, he has said he restored thousands of felons' rights through a similar application process.
Branstad's successor, Vilsack, continued that policy until his 2005 executive order that automatically restored voting rights for felons once they left prison or parole. Republicans, including Branstad, criticized the move as politically motivated. Up to 100,000 felons had their rights restored under the policy, which was in effect until after Branstad won election to a fifth term in November 2010.
The state's new top elections official, Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz, urged Branstad to reinstate the application process to "send a message to Iowa's voters that their voting privilege is sacred and will not be compromised."
In rescinding Vilsack's policy, Branstad said applying for citizenship rights "is an important and necessary aspect of an offender's process of reintegration."
Henry Straight said he would try to obtain the missing documentation and resubmit his application.
Ironically, he said he would like to be able to vote for Branstad, calling the governor a proven leader.
"But if you can't vote," he said, "you are nobody."