Opinion: Voting Rights Should Be Independent of Felon’s Financial Means

This article by Simpson College Vote Everywhere Ambassador Mackenzie Bills originally appeared in The Simpsonian

Denying individuals the right to vote has been a focal point of many extensive movements in the United States over its long history. Women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement are examples of inequality within the American system. It is normative to say that no one will deny any person the right to vote based on gender, race or religion. But what happens when rash criminal actions are part of discussion? Should someone that kills another person be given the same right to vote as any other being? The question that Iowa continues to ask is whether or not felons should have their voting rights restored.

There are currently two states that allow felons to vote from prison, while 11 states, including Iowa, permanently ban voting rights of felons. There are 37 states plus Washington D.C. that restore voting laws after a particular amount of probation and parole. It is obvious this question has many possible answers- answers that are not agreed upon from state to state.

I understand why there is a variance among states in restoring voting laws to felons- they are felons! Something must happen once you break the law. One of the main rights as a citizen, that the United States prides itself on, is the pride of influencing a nation through a vote, so removal of these rights is an easy punishment to reprimand those who do not adhere to state and federal laws or even societal order.

On January 14, 2011 Gov. Terry Branstad signed Executive Order 70 that allowed a full restoration of voting laws to felons if they pay their outstanding monetary obligations to the court in addition to completing their period of parole or probation. He or she must then apply for restoration of the ability to vote.

Sounds good, in theory. Branstad also recognizes the differences between those who have killed a person and someone that grew weed in their basement. He is offering a solution to this problem, but his solution is inherently supporting those that come from means. Outstanding court costs, depending on the state, often encompass trial, jail, legal and court fees. Defendants pay their own arrest warrants, DNA samples and are even billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington State, the defendant pays the fee for a jury trial, which equals $250 for a 12- person jury trial. This often amounts to thousands of dollars worth of outstanding costs.

Even if a felon is able to obtain a job after being released from prison, which is difficult enough, if the defendant works minimum wage, it will take him or her years to be able to pay off their outstanding bills- due to the fact that minimum wage is set below the poverty line. It is highly unlikely that the defendant will be able to pay back all fees unless they come from means.

The second issue with this particular solution is looking at demographics of felons. It is easy to see Iowa has racial disparity among defendants. No matter where you stand in believing this is due to racial tensions or poverty, it is realistic to say that most defendants tend to be of color, high school dropouts and those with mental illnesses.

These groups already have a tough enough time obtaining a job, adding a monetary obligation is only taunting them. The state is basically telling felons that unless they are from means, they are unable to ever vote again. At the same time, it supports those with means to get away with illegal actions. Is this the type of Iowa we want to have? Is this “Iowa nice”- supporting those with wealth while continuously ridiculing those who come from poverty?

I am not saying Iowa needs to be like Maine or Vermont and allow felons to vote while incarcerated, but is it really fair to deny all defendants the fundamental American right to vote for the rest of their lives? I only want everyone to think about how we best ought to approach this problem. Implementing the Executive Order 70 is a step in the right direction, but we ought to look at the demographics that will be utilizing it. If we want our system to be fair, we need to make sure we are fair to those that are in it and using it.

About the Author

MacKenzie Bills is a junior at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa majoring in Political Science and International Relations with minors in Religion and French. President and Founder of  Simpson Votes, MacKenzie is passionate about civic engagement and voter education. She cares about people and wants to make sure the government does them justice. Interning for Representative Bruce Braley in DC for the summer as well as being selected as a virtual intern for the State Department has done nothing but ignite her will for working for the government. She cannot wait to represent The Andrew Goodman Foundation and engage students in government at all levels as well as grow and expand her leadership abilities.