IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa is moving to revise its voter registration application to help clear up widespread confusion over felons’ voting rights, according to an administrative rule published Tuesday.
The change, adopted by a bipartisan commission, would remove a question that some voters have erroneously marked indicating they are felons without the right to vote. Another revision would explain that convicted felons aren’t qualified to vote until they have their rights restored by Gov. Terry Branstad. Prospective voters still would have to attest that they are not felons without voting right when signing the application.
If the changes go into effect, as expected, a new application will be in use starting April 9. The state will gather public comment on the proposed changes through Jan. 28, and a legislative rules committee will review them in February.
Anyone convicted in Iowa of an “infamous crime” — including all felonies and some aggravated misdemeanors — loses their right to vote and hold public office. To get those rights back after they serve their sentences, they have to apply for and obtain clemency from Branstad under an executive order he signed in 2011.
“The widespread confusion about voting for people with criminal convictions in Iowa has played out in a number of unfortunate ways since the governor made the policy more restrictive,” American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa attorney Rita Bettis said in a statement. “This change will help clarify the law in Iowa for voters and provide useful information that people with felony convictions can have their right to vote restored through the governor’s office.”
Branstad, a Republican, in 2011 signed an order that reinstated the individual application process, making Iowa among the more difficult states for offenders to win back their voting rights. The move rescinded a 2005 executive order signed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, that automatically restored voting rights to felons once they completed their sentences.
Branstad says his policy helps ensure that former offenders are paying restitution, court costs and fulfilling other responsibilities before they can vote. Critics say that the policy is too harsh and disenfranchises too many voters.
The prior policy means some felons who finished their terms before January 2011 had their voting rights restored automatically. Those who have finished their sentences since then have to apply for clemency.
Adding to the stakes, an investigation by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office has led to criminal charges against some felons who were ineligible but registered to vote or voted anyway. Even some who have been charged said they had no fraudulent intent and were simply confused.
The misunderstood question on the voter registration application added more confusion.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters petitioned for the changes in October, saying that some voters were erroneously marking “no” to the question asking: “If you have previously been convicted of a felony, have your rights been restored?”
Some county auditors reported similar confusion about the question, which was added as part of a revision to the application that took effect last year.
The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office said that it was still registering those who had mistakenly responded “no” by comparing their names against a database of known Iowa felons who do not have voting rights.
The petitioners argued the question was unnecessary, given the database check and the affidavit requiring voters to affirm under penalty of perjury that they were not ineligible felons.
The bipartisan Voter Registration Commission unanimously adopted the change last month. The commission also agreed to add a line in bold font at the top of the application to explain: “In Iowa, you are not qualified to vote if you have been convicted of a felony and have not received a restoration of voting rights. You may apply to the Governor to restore your voting rights.”