Skip to main content

Disenfranchisement News: Iowa Gov. Ends Lifetime Ban on Voting for People with Felony Convictions

August 17, 2020
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring the right to vote for people with felony convictions. Iowa was the only state that still permanently disenfranchised those with felony convictions unless the governor intervened.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Iowa Gov. Reynolds Ends Lifetime Ban on Voting for People with Felony Convictions

Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order automatically restoring the right to vote for people with felony convictions once they complete all terms of their sentence, excluding people convicted of homicide offenses. Previously, Iowa was the only state that still permanently disenfranchised all persons with felony convictions unless the governor intervened. The order does not require individuals to pay any outstanding fines or fees as a condition of being able to vote, and will impact an estimated 40,000 people ahead of the November election.

For the past two years, Gov. Reynolds had been pushing lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s felony disenfranchisement policies. In early June, Des Moines Black Lives Matter activists met with Gov. Reynolds and urged her to take action now to restore voting rights. After the Republican-led Senate again declined to pass a constitutional amendment, Gov. Reynolds said she would issue an executive order.

The executive order is a temporary solution that could be reversed by a future governor. In 2005, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, but in 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the order. Gov. Reynolds said she will continue to advocate for a constitutional amendment, which couldn’t be reversed by a future governor.

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Florida’s Pay-to-Vote System

The Supreme Court has left in place an order by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that will allow Florida to disenfranchise people with felony convictions if they cannot pay their court fines and fees. The ruling impacts an estimated 85,000 Floridians, who could be prosecuted if they vote in the upcoming election with unpaid legal financial obligations.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4 to automatically restore voting rights to most people convicted of a felony upon completion of all terms of their sentence. The Republican-controlled legislature then passed Senate Bill 7066, which defined “all terms of sentence” to include all legal financial obligations. Civil rights and voting rights advocates challenged the bill, calling it an unconstitutional poll tax.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared that Florida “cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay,” and issued a permanent injunction. In July, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Judge Hinkle’s order and scheduled a hearing for August 18th – the date of the Florida primary.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, said the 11th Circuit Court’s order “continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement” and “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.”

Coalition of 20 Attorneys General Oppose Florida’s Felony Disenfranchisement Law

Led by Washington, DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, a coalition of 20 Attorneys General filed an amicus brief in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals opposing Florida’s Senate Bill 7066. The Attorney Generals argue that Florida’s pay-to-vote laws harm low-income people with felony convictions, and disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx communities. In addition, they note that studies have found that expanding voting to returning citizens promotes successful reintegration and enhances public safety.

The Sentencing Project Supports North Carolina Felony Disenfranchisement Lawsuit

North Carolina’s disenfranchisement of 56,000 people on community supervision for a felony conviction unfairly discriminates against African Americans and violates the state’s Constitution, according to a recent lawsuit.  A friends of the court brief filed by The Sentencing Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, notes that over half (57%) of all North Carolina voters who were disenfranchised in 2016 because of a felony conviction were on community supervision. Black North Carolinians comprise 42% of those barred from voting because they are under post-conviction supervision, but make up only 22% of the state’s total population.

In an op-ed for The News & Observer, Henderson Hill, prominent North Carolina lawyer and member of The Sentencing Project’s Board of Directors, argued that the state’s current law “mutes the political voices of Black North Carolinians.” The country “is best served by a fully engaged and representative electorate. It is time to eliminate such racially biased obstacles to democratic participation, and for the State’s disenfranchisement law to be declared unconstitutional.”

The state Superior Court is scheduled to hear the case August 19th.

Lawsuit: No pathway for rights restoration for Tennesseans with out-of-state convictions

A Tennessee judge ruled against plaintiffs seeking to change the rights restoration process for those with out-of-state convictions ahead of the state’s August primary election. Tennessee law disenfranchises anyone convicted of a felony conviction in any state or federal court unless they’ve been pardoned or had their citizenship rights restored. In an opinion released earlier this year, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said individuals seeking to have their rights restored must pay all outstanding financial obligations before being eligible to vote. According to the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups bringing the suit, this has resulted in local election commissions rejecting applicants who can’t prove they paid all their fines and fees. The lawsuit argues that this policy contradicts the varied avenues for restoration in state law, with many states not requiring any payment of fees in order to restore voting rights.

Ernest Falls, one of two plaintiffs named in the suit, is barred from voting in Tennessee due to a conviction from 1986 in Virginia. By 1987, he completed his sentence and was never required to pay any court costs or restitution associated with his conviction. In February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted him clemency, restoring his rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. However, because Falls was unable to prove that he had paid any fees, his Tennessee registration to vote was rejected.

“Unfortunately, our plaintiffs are not going to be able to vote on Aug. 6, but this issue is very much alive, and we’re fighting for their right to vote in the November elections,” said attorney Blair Bowie with the Campaign Legal Center after the ruling. The case will continue in chancery court.

Senate Democrats Introduce Resolution to Enshrine Right to Vote in U.S. Constitution

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, along with several Senate colleagues, introduced a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution to enshrine every citizens’ right to vote in local, state and federal elections. The amendment would ensure that states could no longer rely on Section 2 of the 14th Amendments to prevent people from voting due to a criminal conviction. If ratified, this amendment will give all people with felony convictions access to the ballot, including those in prison.

Related Posts
April 11, 2022

#SecondChanceMonth: Unlock the Vote

Honoring April as Second Chance Month gives us an opportunity to check in on developments in voting rights and expanding the franchise to incarcerated voters. The Sentencing Project is working regularly with state and local campaigns to expand voting rights to justice impacted voters.
April 05, 2022

Letter Opposing the PROTECT Act of 2022

The PROTECT Act of 2022 would have far-reaching implications for eroding fairness and justice, including the potential to usher in a new era of mandatory minimums.