Since the 2016 election, an estimate of over 45,000 Iowans with past felony convictions have had their voting rights restored in time to participate in the 2020 election.
An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people with felony convictions were unable to vote in Iowa in 2016.
This restoration number in part comes from the pressure the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement put on Gov. Kim Reynolds to sign an executive order restoring voting rights to Iowans with prior felony convictions.
Until the executive order, those with prior felony convictions would have to individually apply to have their voting rights restored.
“When people have paid their debt to society through probation or time served and they don’t have their rights back, that is a problem,” said Colo Chanel, a Des Moines Black Liberation Movement member. “We had to organize something because we knew felony disenfranchisement was an issue in Iowa.”
The ban on voting rights for those convicted of felony charges in Iowa disproportionately affected the Black population. A 2016 estimate showed felon disenfranchisement affected nearly one in 10 Black Iowans of voting age.
“Iowa’s system is so embedded in mass incarceration and the prison industry,” Chanel said. “It’s systems on top of systems that really hurt marginalized people.”
Black people make up 5 percent of Iowa’s population while also making up 23 percent of Iowa’s incarcerated population, according to a study from Prison Policy Initiative compiled from 2010 census data. This is disproportionate when compared to Iowa’s white population, which makes up 89 percent of Iowa’s population while taking up 66 percent of Iowa’s incarcerated population, according to the study.
The study also shows Iowa’s incarceration rate stands out internationally. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 698 per 100,000 people according to the Prison Policy Initiative study, while Iowa as a state beats out all founding NATO countries at 568 per 100,000 people.
Automatic restoration of voting rights under Reynolds’ executive order are granted when a person with a felony conviction has completed their prison time, parole and/or probation.
Those with a felony homicide charge are still not eligible for restoration of voting rights and those serving 10 years to life under a serious sexual abuse charge must complete any special sentences, meaning some may never receive their voting rights back if they are serving a life sentence.
A day after Des Moines Black Liberation Movement marched to Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie’s house last June, the Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill requiring those with prior felony convictions to pay restitution to victims before being reenfranchised, a requirement not included in Reynolds’ executive order.
“This is also a problem as well because it's like, ‘I’ve done my time. I’ve paid my debt to society. Why do I have to wait to pay restitution to vote in a system I’ve already been made an example out of?’” Chanel said.
From then on, the Des Moines Black Liberation engaged in letter writing and frequent protests until the order was signed, but they were not invited to the Iowa Capitol to witness the signing of the order.
“That really hurt our feelings because we worked so hard,” Chanel said. “Our activism as individuals alone, before we had even come together as a collective, runs really deep in the community of Des Moines. So when we came together imagine that power we had. We all had individual experience with organizing our own demonstrations for Black liberation.”
Iowa was the sole state in the country to permanently disenfranchise those with prior felony convictions after their sentence had been served until the executive order was signed.
“Changes like these don’t happen unless there’s a substantial amount of political pressure,” said Mack Shelley, department chair of political science at Iowa State University.
Shelley referred to Republicans in the Iowa Legislature and the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement as the political forces pressuring the executive order.
Pushback came from Republicans in the Iowa State Legislature to Reynolds’ wish to enact the restoration through a constitutional amendment. Iowa Senate Republicans struck down the proposal in 2019 and 2020. Reynolds would then opt to use an executive order instead.
A constitutional amendment as Gov. Reynolds originally proposed would be a lengthier process, potentially taking several years, but would be much harder to overturn than an executive order.
After the 2010 elections, newly elected Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded a 2005 executive order from former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, which restored voting rights to those with felony convictions. A future Iowa governor could potentially do the same to Reynolds’ executive order.
“This is a voting block that might skew toward Democratic candidates, partly just because of the demographic mix,” Shelley said, citing how Black Iowans are disproportionately affected by disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions and the voting behavior of Black Americans.
Pew Research Center survey data shows 83 percent of Black Americans registered to vote in 2018 and 2019 identify or lean toward the Democratic Party, with 10 percent preferring the Republican Party.
“Republican politicians are the ones with their political future most likely to be impacted by the order,” Shelley said, while also stating newly enfranchised voters will still likely be scattered across party lines with the specific impact on the elections difficult to determine.
“A lot of Republicans in the state Legislature are in some pretty safe districts, I don’t think they’d have to worry terribly much about losing their seat,” Shelley said.
Republicans currently have a 30 to 18 majority in the Iowa Senate, but only a 53 to 47 majority in the Iowa House of Representatives. Democrats controlling the Iowa Senate after the 2020 elections is highly unlikely, but Democrats gaining control of the Iowa House of Representatives is possible, potentially leading to the addition of felon voting rights to Iowa’s Constitution.