More than ever, Eric Harris is mindful of the elected officials around him: The school board members deciding whether his children will go back to the classroom, the sheriff influencing how officers interact with people like him, and the U.S. president steering the country’s coronavirus response.
This year has given Harris lots of reasons to vote. And this year, he can.
With three felonies on his record, the 41-year-old had been barred from voting in Iowa — the last state that had permanently banned people convicted of felonies from voting without the governor's approval — until an executive order from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in early August changed that. “It means a lot to me,” Harris said.
In every state except Maine and Vermont, people convicted of felonies are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban extends to those on probation or parole, while some states have additional time and fee requirements, disenfranchising millions of people.
Reynolds restored automatic voting rights to most people with felony records after they complete their sentence, including parole or probation; the exceptions are people with homicide convictions, who must file an application. Under the order, an estimated 60,000 additional people now are eligible to vote in the Hawkeye State.
They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of others with felony convictions who are newly eligible to vote in the general election this year. Since the 2016 election, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Virginia also have implemented or expanded voting rights for some people convicted of felonies.
The political stakes are up for debate. Roughly 630,000 people with felony convictions can vote this year in Florida, nearly six times the 113,000 vote-margin by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state. But research has shown that like other voters, people convicted of felonies who are registered don’t necessarily vote.
Still, groups ranging from liberal political organizations to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters are working furiously to find these newly eligible voters as registration deadlines approach. But the pandemic is complicating in-person registration drives, as are the uncertainties around mail-in voting. And eight states explicitly require people with felony records to pay some form of court costs and fees before registering.
In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people or 1 in 40 adults were unable to vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. The project found that Black people were the most likely to be disenfranchised: More than 7% of the adult African American population, or 1 in 13 people, could not vote because of a felony conviction.
“The burden of disenfranchisement falls on poor folks and people of color. All of that skews our democracy,” said Blair Bowie, who leads the Restore Your Vote project at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “You're cutting out voices that are important. That makes it harder for our government to reflect the will of the people.”
Voting rights advocates consider Reynolds’ order in Iowa a victory, but say the goal is to make the voting rights part of the state’s constitution. Advocates also want to expand voting rights in every state to include people on probation and parole, people who haven’t paid court costs and people in prison.
But ongoing legal disputes, particularly one in Florida, show how complicated the issue is.
Veronica Fowler, communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, feels the pressure. She’s glad for the governor’s executive order but cognizant of the ticking clock leading up to Election Day.
“It’s a heavy lift. There isn’t a lot of time,” Fowler said of getting people registered to vote.
“This population is especially challenging to reach out to and motivate,” she said. “If you have been recently incarcerated, you have a lot going on in your life.”
The Iowa Department of Corrections has started including a handout in discharge packets that explains the terms of the governor’s order, according to spokesperson Cord Overton. But to reach those who are already out of prison, the ACLU is relying on flyers, social media posts and word-of-mouth communication through people including Harris. In addition to working at a restaurant, he cooks part time at a homeless shelter. “I know a lot of people who are disenfranchised.”
In Kentucky, an estimated 170,000 people with felony records were given voting rights in December under an order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. As in Iowa, the order doesn’t automatically apply to people convicted of certain violent offenses.
Grassroots advocacy organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been working for years on expanding voting rights. Since Beshear’s order, and with the help of other organizations, it has put together a list of more than 60,000 names and contact information for people who now can register to vote.
Although Debra Graner, 69, has been staying at home because of the pandemic, she’s helping with texting outreach. The work is personal. She has a felony on her record and registered to vote as soon as she could after Beshear’s order.
“When I got my rights to vote back, I said, ‘Look, there are other people who don’t have a right. It’s a core principle,’” she said. “I have a voice, and I need to have it heard these days.”
National groups are helping too. The Campaign Legal Center has helped restore voting rights to nearly 10,000 people with felony convictions and trained 5,000 community leaders since it started the Restore Your Vote program three years ago, according to Bowie.
Community leaders troubleshoot registration problems, often at the local registrar level. And when center officials think a state’s law isn’t right, they file lawsuits, Bowie said. The center is one of the groups involved in the ongoing legal battle in Florida.
In 2018, 65% of Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment to give voting rights to people with felony records who had completed parole or probation, with the exception of those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
But the GOP-controlled legislature last year passed a measure to require that restitution, fines and fees be paid before voting rights are restored. Over half of the estimated 1.4 million people convicted of felonies in the state have outstanding court costs or restitution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
Lawsuits have ensued over the constitutionality of the law, which opponents liken to a poll tax. A federal judge in May found the requirement to be unconstitutional. But Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor. Voting rights groups asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in; the court in July left in place the appeals court’s order. The issue remains before the appeals court, which heard arguments in the case Aug. 18.
Florida is known for close elections, and some political observers think a majority of the new voters would vote Democratic. But Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights and elections in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Project, dismisses the notion that politics drive enfranchisement efforts.
“The decisions about who has the right to vote should never be based on an assessment of how we think someone is going to vote,” he said. “We should be for or against voting rights restoration because of the merits of the policy, not the politics.”
The parties to the lawsuit have agreed to expedite the case with the pending election. Meanwhile, Florida activists want to get as many people registered to vote as they can.
The League of Women Voters of Florida is trying to reach residents on a list of about 68,000 people who don’t have outstanding fines, according to the group’s president, Patricia Brigham. Volunteers have called about 20,000 people and reached slightly more than 1,000 on the first try. They’re going to keep running through the list, look into a texting option and start sending postcards, she said.
“All of the others are in limbo,” Brigham said. “They may not know if they have fines. There are some who can’t afford it. You can’t hold that against an American citizen when it comes to voting. That’s a modern-day poll tax. It’s a form of voter suppression.”
Another group working on outreach is the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which has raised $4 million to cover fees and restitution costs that might keep people from voting.
The nonpartisan group so far has donated up to $1,500 each to 3,000 people, according to its president, Desmond Meade. Many people owe the state much more than that, but the group wants to help as many people as possible before the Oct. 5 registration deadline — and while hoping for a court ruling to overturn the fines and fees requirement.
“We will walk every step of the way with every one of the 1.4 million people,” Meade said. “We are here for them.”
Beyond the push toward the November elections, voting rights activists eventually want to extend voting to people on probation or parole and people in prison.
“Residents who are required to pay taxes, be good citizens, they should also have a role in determining who governs them,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director of state and local policy for the Sentencing Project.
A referendum on the ballot in California in November would give parolees voting rights. Efforts are ongoing in other states, including Connecticut, where legislation proposed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, to extend voting rights to people on parole died this year.
“Denise will make the proposal again at the next legislative session, and as many times as is necessary until it passes,” said Gabe Rosenberg, communications director. Gov. Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, has supported similar legislation.
Washington, D.C.'s city council this summer passed emergency legislation to allow people convicted of a felony to vote while incarcerated and could approve a permanent measure.
Indeed, research from the Sentencing Project shows that changes through executive action and legislation from 1997-2018 in 23 states restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people.
In 17 states, people convicted of felonies automatically are eligible to vote after being released from prison, according to the Brennan Center.
In 17 others, voting rights are restored after prison, parole and probation. In 11 states, at least some people are permanently ineligible to vote under certain convictions without government-approved restoration.
In three, voting rights are regained after prison and parole, and people on probation can vote.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior scholar at the Heritage Foundation and former member of the Federal Elections Commission under President George W. Bush, in an interview criticized the executive order in Iowa, calling it harmful to victims.
“When you are sentenced for a felony, everything that you were ordered to do by a judge is part of that sentence,” he said, including restitution. “To restore the right to vote when you haven't completed all of the terms of the sentence is fundamentally unfair.”
Von Spakovsky also said he thinks if voting rights are restored, the move should be done in conjunction with the restoration of other civil rights, such as being able to carry a gun, run for office or sit on a jury.
“If the state believes that your very important right to vote should be restored, why would all those other rights not be restored?” he said.
Some advocates take issue with executive orders like Iowa’s but for a different reason: They can easily be overturned by a new governor.
That’s just what happened in Iowa: Reynolds restored rights this year after Republican Gov. Terry Branstad took them away in 2011. Branstad had reversed a 2005 order from Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that gave voting rights to people with felony convictions.
Council Bluff, Iowa, resident Jamie Achenbaugh, who finished probation two years ago for a felony conviction, hopes the legislature will consider passing an amendment that would make her voting rights permanent.
Achenbaugh, 37, petitioned the governor for voting access earlier this year and was told she had to set up a payment plan for the $3,000 she owes in court costs. Under Reynolds’ executive order, she’s able to vote again.
“It’s the kind of thing you don’t think about until you don’t have that right,” she said. “It makes you feel like a part of society.”