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June 26, 2005 - Iowa City Press-Citizen (IA)

Editorial: Vilsack Takes Moral Road In Felon Voting

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Bravo to Gov. Tom Vilsack for deciding to rid Iowa of a racist law. On July 4, he'll sign an executive order restoring voting rights to convicted felons after they've finished serving their sentences.

The move gives voting rights to 50,000 state residents. Until then, Iowa remains one of five states -- the rest all once boasting a star on the Confederacy's flag -- that ban a convict's ability to vote for life.

In a racially-blind society, Vilsack's decision ought to be celebrated as a crime-fighting step in a state with prisons so overcrowded we must ship inmates across our borders.

When felons maintain the right to vote, to reconnect with their communities, crime rates and recidivism actually decline. Recidivism contributes greatly to overcrowded prisons -- a situation that strains safe working conditions for security guards and costs the state more dollars for courts, local law enforcement and prisons.

But Vilsack's move largely is about ending racial discrimination in our society. For the five states with no-voting-for-life laws, minorities (and blacks in particular) are convicted in much larger proportions than their actual numbers in the general population.

High drug rates and few economic opportunities, factors directly affecting those who eventually commit crimes, remain the worst in minority communities; our failure as a nation to adequately address these problems unfairly condemns many minorities to eventual imprisonment and loss of voting rights.

"Felony disenfranchisement laws are the last vestiges of Jim Crow," Catherine Weiss, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, aptly told The Associated Press last week.

Whether white or black, no-voting-for-life laws violate civil liberties. After all, if you've served your time in prison, why continue to be punished? Perhaps organized crime or acts aimed at bringing down the state -- such as terrorism or treason -- warrant loss of voting rights for life.

But why should an OWI or a theft conviction affect one's ability to decide if the city should take out bonds to build a library or which assembly candidate will best ensure economic growth? In any case, advocates for the permanent loss of voting rights have yet to show that this punitive measure ultimately prevents crime.

A few state GOP leaders unfortunately see the move as politically motivated. They argue that as a disproportionate number of felons come from minority and lower-income groups, that likely means more votes for Democrats than Republicans.

It's an odd complaint to make at the same time that the GOP has rightly criticized Democrat Party Chairman Howard Dean for calling Republicans "... pretty much a white, Christian party." Such rhetoric aside, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers asked Vilsack to revoke the law.

Given the potential political fallout of restoring felons' right to vote, the governor made a bold move. It is, in the end, the morally right decision.

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