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Outreach Limitations Impact Voting for Past Felons in IA

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Friday, November 6, 2020   

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Prior to the November election, Iowans with past felony convictions were given the opportunity to vote. However, only a small number registered, and advocates point to a short timeframe, while hoping for more outreach in future elections.

Late this summer, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an order that restored the voting rights of more than 30,000 people who had completed their sentences. Results are incomplete, but early data show only 3,300 registered.

State Representative-elect Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, was among those trying to raise awareness. She said timing was a factor, because the order was signed in August.

But she also wondered if the Secretary of State and other agencies could have done a more targeted outreach.

"My sense is that there was just not a significant effort to really make people's rights known," said Bohannan. "And that it came pretty late in the game to really try to do something for this election."

She said mailings sent out were not specific enough and might not have reached all those eligible because it's possible their address wasn't current.

However, the Secretary of State's office said it did heavy media promotion, while making numerous resources available - including a specific website for residents who fall under this category.

Michelle Heinz is executive director of the Johnson County group Inside Out Re-Entry Community, which serves those returning to society after incarceration.

She said most of the people they assist aren't eligible because they're still on parole. But she said when notifying those who did qualify, there was some confusion.

"Very few actually knew that they were eligible and understood the full eligibility if they were aware of it," said Heinz. "So, there seemed to be kind of an information disconnect."

Heinz added that most people who are eligible are no longer served by groups like hers, and are focused on their daily lives. She suggested that's where the state can step in by getting the message out in a broader way.

Bohannan added there can't be assumptions that everyone who qualifies will go to the website. She said there are other ways to establish a broader outreach.

"Working with the Department of Corrections to try to see whether we have any current contact information for folks," said Bohannan.

She said that could be beneficial in making more connections through the mail.

The corrections department did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

Meanwhile, Bohannan said she is hopeful advocacy groups will have more time for coordinated outreach when municipal elections are held next year.


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