Florida voting rights victory spurs fights in Iowa, Kentucky

By Seth Galinsky
February 4, 2019

The successful fight to restore voting rights to more than a million former prisoners in Florida has spread to Iowa and Kentucky. Constitutional provisions in those two states continue to bar the right to vote to most people released after serving time on felony convictions, as had been the case in Florida before last November’s overwhelming passage of Amendment 4.

What these three states had in common was that only a successful appeal to the governor could win the right to vote.

Now those convicted of felonies in Florida automatically regain their right to vote once they’ve completed their sentence, including probation or parole and paying fines, except for those convicted of sex offenses or murder. That’s a step forward toward eliminating all restrictions there and across the country.

“The push to change the Iowa constitution is definitely getting attention because of Florida,” Michelle Heinz, executive director of the Inside Out Reentry Community, told the Militant  by phone from Iowa City Jan. 19. “We feel a little gassed up and want to get things moving.” Inside Out helps former prisoners get jobs, housing and medical care.

Some 52,000 people convicted of felonies are unable to vote in Iowa. Blacks are hardest hit by the undemocratic restrictions, with nearly one in 10 blocked from voting.

The Iowa Constitution says that “no idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector” unless the governor restores their right personally. The state Supreme Court has ruled that all felony convictions are “infamous” crimes.

In 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order automatically restoring those rights. By the end of 2010 some 115,000 former prisoners regained their right to vote.

But in January 2011, incoming Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the executive order. By the time he left office last year, he had restored the right to vote to only 206 people.

Unlike in Florida, the only way a constitutional amendment can get on the ballot in Iowa is for the legislature to approve it two years in a row. After that it’s put on the ballot for a popular vote.

Since the victory in Florida, newly elected Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she plans to submit a bill to get things going.

“We want the governor to issue an executive order like Vilsack did so people can get back their right to vote right away. And we don’t want any types of felony convictions excluded,” Heinz said. “But the only way to really guarantee these rights is to change the constitution.”

Doren Walker, 56, who was released from prison in December 2016 after serving more than 10 years on a felony charge, recently applied to get his rights back from the governor.

“It’s rough getting out of prison and at first getting my right to vote back was not a priority,” he told the Militant  from Kalona, Iowa. “I’ve been very lucky. I’m driving a milk truck and the community I live in has a lot of Amish and Mennonites. They treat you how you are today and don’t judge you for a mistake in the past.”

Walker volunteers with Inside Out. A staff member there convinced him to apply to get his rights restored. But the process is convoluted, Walker said. You have to fill out a form and pay $15 to get the state Department of Criminal Investigation to generate a report. The governor’s office said it could take up to two years.

“I’m like, why?” Walker said. “They said the application has to go through a lot of departments and that’s just how it works.”

Walker’s story was featured on the front page of the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The next day, he was informed that his request had been approved. “Ideally this will bring awareness so that the constitution is changed,” he said.

Nearly one in 10 residents of Kentucky — including one in four African-Americans — are barred from voting because of felony convictions. In early January, the Fair Elections Center and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center joined a lawsuit by several ex-prisoners challenging the restrictions.

In November 2015 outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to more than 100,000 ex-felons. But current Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin upon assuming office overturned the order. He says he has personally restored the right to more than 1,000 former prisoners who applied, but he opposes the lawsuit.

The Socialist Workers Party in Kentucky is one of the groups pushing to change the constitution there. “My party defends the right of all workers who’ve been behind bars to vote. Our campaign calls for a fight to overturn this law,” said Amy Husk, SWP candidate for Kentucky governor, in a statement released to the press Jan. 9.

“The Socialist Workers Party campaigns for class solidarity between workers behind bars and those outside. Prisons and the capitalist rulers’ whole criminal ‘justice’ system aren’t set up to dispense justice, but to intimidate and keep working people in their place,” she said.

“Winning voting rights for all former prisoners is part of the fight to unify the working class,” Husk said, “to bring us together as equals in the struggle to overturn capitalist oppression and exploitation.”