The debate over disenfranchised felons misses the mark. There’s a lot of indignation about lost voting rights, but it’s really a story about the lack of transparency and lack of desire.
Democrats and Republicans have made the issue a political football. Most Democrats assert that voting is a right—not a privilege—that should be restored immediately after being released from prison. Its belief system is helped out by the fact that many felons are low-income individuals who tend to vote Democrat. Many Republicans view voting as a privilege belonging to law-abiding citizens. The notion is that by choosing to commit a felony, an individual makes a simultaneous choice to lose voting rights. Those rights can be restored after release from prison by completing an application process, but some believe these potential Democrat voters may not go through that effort.
Both political parties want control of the vote, but what does the average, newly-released felon want?
There are dozens of agencies, charitable organizations and ministries designed to help a felon reenter society. Some help with basic needs of food, clothing and housing. Others help with employment opportunities and everything that goes along with getting that first job, like obtaining a new driver’s license.
What’s been getting missed, is the conversation about how to restore voting rights. As soon as the prison doors swing open, the Iowa Department of Corrections should be required to notify all released felons of the process required to restore voting rights and offer assistance if needed.
The tragedy isn’t that voting rights were taken away because of the crime committed. It’s that the process to restore those rights isn’t transparent.
It’s the spark that eventually led to the current Griffin v. Pate firestorm. Kelli Jo Griffin, a convicted felon, didn’t know about the, “Application for Restoration of Citizenship Rights.” She thought her voting rights would be automatically restored after her debt to society was paid. Better communication might have helped to avoid the lawsuit that is being argued before the Iowa Supreme Court.
It shouldn’t be a secret on how to be a voter in Iowa. Understanding how to restore voting rights should be as common as knowing how to get your driver’s license back after it has expired. Most people know that once a license is expired, an individual must spend a fair amount of time and effort to restore driving privileges. One must pass a written and driving test, and provide supporting documentation of identification. People know the rules. And if it does expire—for anyone, felon or non-felon—individuals will exert the effort needed. Because driving is important to them.
The U.S. Department of Transportation states that about 87 percent of the driving-age population has a license. Compare that percentage with the 42 percent of individuals who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, exercised their right to vote in the 2014 elections.
Citizens in this country care about voting about half as much as they care about driving.
Transparency is the first tool to combat the disenfranchising of felons. Information on how to restore voting rights should be made available at the time of release and assistance provided if needed.
Then comes the tougher part—desire. In the state of Iowa, it takes desire on the part of the felon to become a voting citizen again by making the effort to pay restitution, complete the application process, and provide supporting documentation. The newly-streamlined application has 13 questions. They’re basic, fact-based questions like name, address and date of birth, as well as date of crime, conviction and release.
I believe in second chances. Kelli Jo Griffin does too. She’s part of the 42 percent who want to vote.
Armed with knowledge and effort, her goal could have been met a long time ago.