Requiring full restitution would mean I'd never get to vote

By Rick Sattler

I was glad to hear Gov. Kim Reynolds say she supports restoring voting rights to people like me who have felony convictions. I have not been glad to hear state legislators say they think that people should pay off all their restitution before they can vote.

I am someone who is slowly paying off $150,000 in restitution. If legislators pass a law that makes voting dependent on paying restitution there will still be many, many people like myself who still won’t be able to vote. I am 60 and I will be paying off my restitution, at the rate of $100 a month, for the rest of my days on this planet. I can’t vote now and if that sort of law were passed, I still wouldn’t be able to vote—ever.

I was convicted of vehicular homicide 14 years ago—a person lost their life. Before that, my only run-ins with the law were speeding tickets and an OWI. I’d do anything to go back to that day and make a different choice.

For five years, I was on probation. I paid thousands of dollars in expenses and $15,000 in attorney fees. It left me financially devastated and there were dark moments when I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from.

I’ve slowly rebuilt my life. I have had a job for the past five years with a good employer who unlike a lot of businesses, will look at the individual who is applying and consider giving them a second chance. Some businesses, when they find you have a felony, won’t even interview you. Which, of course, makes paying off restitution all the harder.

The call to require people to completely pay restitution before allowing people like me to vote is confusing. It would actually make the law more restrictive than it is now, in a certain way. In Iowa, you can apply to have your right to vote restored. One of the requirements is that you are current on restitution and fees or fines. So changing it so that people have to pay off all their restitution makes it more strict.

I haven’t gone through the application process. If I mess up and put a wrong answer, I could get slapped with perjury charges. I’d want a lawyer to help me apply, and I don’t have that kind of money.

People think that people convicted of a felony must be walking around with horns and scary tattoos, looking like something out of a prison movie. But I can promise you that a lot of us are just ordinary people who have done something really, really stupid or wrongly put someone in harm’s way. If you look around, we’re your neighbors, your family, your coworkers, and your friends; there are over 60,000 of us who can’t vote because of a felony conviction.

In Iowa, you can be convicted of a Class D felony if you steal a backpack that contains expensive textbooks or an iPhone, if you steal a nice bike, if you get a third OWI, or you punch someone and break their nose.

Here’s the bottom line: What is the goal in banning people like me from voting? I served the terms of my sentence and I am doing my best to be a contributing member of society, being as active and involved in my community as I am able.

Continuing to deprive me of my vote only hurts that reentry process, and that hurts everyone. With some people, when you take away so much from them and drive them even farther away from society, it just alienates them and sets them up to revert to old bad habits.

It’s time for Iowa to join the 48 other states in this country that have recognized that depriving people with felony convictions of the right to vote does not help our society. That in fact, it does just the opposite.

Restoring My Right to Vote in Iowa Was a Long, Hard Struggle

By Matt Becke

The right to vote not only is important to me, it is also a cornerstone of any democratic government. So as an Iowan with a nonviolent felony conviction in my background, it is frustrating to hear the Iowa governor’s office talk about how easy and “streamlined” it is for those of us with checkered pasts to get our right to vote restored.

Compiling the documentation to apply takes weeks, if not months. If you have multiple charges in multiple counties, it will take longer. I count myself lucky. As a white middle-class student at a private university, I have privileges many others might lack. I’m well-educated and excel at navigating bureaucracies. That’s not the case with many others, who may find they have to retain a lawyer to understand and complete the application.

While my story is becoming more positive every day, my efforts to pull myself out of the trouble I created have been largely hampered by the state. I served eight months in an Iowa penitentiary for the distribution of cannabis, a class D felony. In 2014 I enrolled at a community college and made the decision to apply to have my right to vote restored. At that time, the process included providing credit check information, tracking down court documents, even finding the addresses of the judge and prosecutor in my case. I was utterly discouraged. Then in 2016, I read that the process had been streamlined. Yet several questions were still confusing and time-consuming, and it still cost money to obtain necessary documentation.  

I pored over old court documents trying to find each piece of information for the form. I paid for the criminal history report, went to the state office to get it, and put together proof that I had paid all my fines—totaling several thousand dollars. If I hadn’t been able to pay them off, I’d then have to submit an essay explaining why and then provide proof that I was current on payment, which would require contacting the court of each conviction.

I asked friends and colleagues to look over my application to spot errors. I probably filled out the form two dozen times before I felt it was ready to submit. Even then, I was haunted by the threat of perjury for even an honest mistake. I have heard what happened to other Iowans with felony convictions, who weren’t aware of the complicated law and believed they could vote and ended up charged with voter fraud or perjury.

It took years, but in July 2016, I was able to submit my application. After about a month, I was finally notified that my citizenship rights had been restored. My jubilation was dampened by the knowledge that an estimated 52,000 other Iowans are unable to participate in our democracy due to the felony convictions in their past.

We have politically silenced these citizens. The only result is that the state is engendering an attitude of alienation in these ex-offenders. How can we expect them to become upstanding citizens if the most basic component of citizenship has been rescinded?  Studies show that when these people can rejoin their communities through voting and civic participation, recidivism is lower.

As one of only three states that automatically and permanently removes the ability to vote for a felony conviction, Iowa is certainly an outlier. It is time that Iowa join the rest of the country and automatically restore the voting rights of people who have discharged their criminal sentences. Until this happens, we are only encouraging ex-offenders to feel ostracized, displaced, and unworthy of reentering our society. 

Matt Becke is a Law, Politics, and Society major at Drake University. He grew up out West, but has spent a third of his life in Iowa.  

I Was Arrested for Voting

By Kelli Jo Griffin

On Election Day in 2013, I took my four children with me to watch me register to vote and cast my ballot in a city election in my small town in Iowa. Earlier that day, my daughter's class learned about the meaning of democracy and the importance of elections.

Two months after I cast my ballot as a civics lesson for my daughter, the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation agents parked across the street from my house, questioned me, and eventually arrested me and charged me with voter fraud.

Let me explain: When I was convicted on a nonviolent drug charge in 2008, my defense attorney told me that once I served my probation, I would regain my right to vote automatically – correct information at the time. But Gov. Terry Branstad suddenly changed the rules in 2011, and now all citizens with a felony conviction lose their voting rights for life. Our Secretary of State Matt Schultz, in fact, has made this subversion of democracy a point of pride. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hunting down and prosecuting people with past convictions who unknowingly registered or cast a vote.

Including me.

I explained that I did not know about the rule change, but the local county attorney insisted on prosecuting me, spending thousands of taxpayers' money to try to send me to jail – away from my husband and young children for up to 15 years. Knowing that I had not committed a crime, I withstood the crippling expense and emotional roller coaster of a trial instead of accepting a plea deal for a crime I knew I did not commit. Finally, three months later, I was acquitted by a jury of my peers. It only took them 40 minutes to come to that decision. I cried with relief as I heard the verdict.

I'm the mom of four wonderful children. I volunteer at my children's schools and a women's crisis center. I speak to domestic violence survivors to support and encourage them. I have overcome a lot in my life, including a destructive prior marriage and a dependency that led to the nonviolent felony drug conviction in 2008. I'm not proud of some parts of my history, but I am proud that I managed to turn my life around and find happiness in my family, my accomplishments, and what I can now offer my community.