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.