- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad restored voting rights to more convicted felons in 2013 than in the prior two years combined, but they represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of former offenders who can’t vote because of a 2011 policy change the governor ordered, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Branstad used his power of executive clemency to restore the right to vote and hold public office to 21 offenders who applied in 2013, compared to 17 in 2012 and two in 2011, according to data released by the governor’s officer under the public records law. Those receiving clemency included people convicted of theft, burglary, drugs, firearms and harassment charges, records show.

The increase comes after the governor’s office made the application process easier in December 2012 in response to criticism from voting rights groups, who argued it was too onerous and perhaps the toughest in the nation. Acknowledging such criticism, Branstad removed requirements that applicants submit a credit history check and that all court-ordered restitution be paid to victims in full before they apply.

But the number of applicants still remains tiny compared to nearly 25,000 offenders who finished their sentences for felonies or aggravated misdemeanors between January 2011 and this month, according to Iowa Department of Corrections data. Under a 2005 policy enacted by then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, those former offenders would have automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from prison or parole.

“While the governor made important improvements last year, the policy still has a clear negative impact,” said Rita Bettis, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Branstad signed an executive order in 2011 on his first day as governor that rescinded Vilsack’s policy and restored the pre-2005 practice of requiring former offenders to apply to the governor to get their voting rights restored. The change made Iowa only one of five states to require the governor to restore ex-felons’ voting rights.

Iowa’s constitution says those convicted of an “infamous crime” - all felonies and some aggravated misdemeanors - lose their right to vote and hold public office until the rights are restored.

NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, and the ACLU say that changing Iowa’s restoration policy is a priority, arguing that voting helps former offenders transition back into the community and lowers recidivism rates. But with a politically divided Legislature and Branstad expected to run for re-election, they don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

Those groups succeeded in lobbying Branstad in 2012 to relax parts of the application process. But the governor has rejected their calls to reverse his executive order, saying he believes it is fair to ensure that offenders are trying to pay restitution and are fulfilling other responsibilities before they can earn their voting rights back.

Despite the changes, the application process still can be time-consuming. Applicants must answer 29 questions, including one requiring them to provide the details of their sentence and others requiring them to provide the current addresses of the judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer involved. They must submit documentation showing they have either paid their restitution and court costs or are working in good faith to do so. And they must undergo a criminal background check through the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. The governor’s office decides on applications within six months, granting them as long as the criteria are met.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the changes to the process are making it easier to apply and leading to more applicants. He said the office expects another increase in 2014 since it is a midterm election year, and called the policy “good and fair.”

“To automatically restore the right to vote without requiring the completion of the responsibilities associated with the criminal conviction would damage the balance between the rights and responsibility of citizens,” he said.

Branstad’s 2011 policy change has caused considerable confusion among offenders over whether they can vote. Seven individuals who sought clemency in 2013 were informed by the governor’s office that their voting rights had been restored because they completed their sentences before the 2011 order took effect, records show.

To combat such confusion, revisions to Iowa’s voter registration application were proposed last week to better explain the issue. Another change would remove a question that had caused some eligible voters to erroneously declare they were felons.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley

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