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Press release/statement

STATEMENT: Voting Rights Groups Respond To Iowa Gov's Executive Order Restoring Voter Eligibility To Formerly Incarcerated Citizens

New York, NY — Today, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, joined by a bipartisan group of legislators, issued an executive order that restores voter eligibility to thousands of disfranchised Iowans. Previously, Iowa was among only a handful of states that permanently denies the right to vote to people with felony convictions. Felon disfranchisement has been criticized across the country for unfairly excluding citizens from the electoral process and for its discriminatory impact on minority communities, who are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population. More than 80,000 Iowa residents are estimated to have lost the vote as a result of the policy.

The right to vote is the foundation of our government and serves as a symbol of opportunity for our citizens," Governor Vilsack said. "Research shows that ex-offenders who vote are less-likely to re-offend and the restoration of voting rights is an important aspect of reintegrating offenders in society so that they become law-abiding and productive citizens."

"Governor Vilsack has broken new ground in recognizing that voting is a civil right for everyone," said Monifa Bandele, national field director for Right to Vote, a campaign to end felon disfranchisement. "This move will be particularly meaningful for African Americans who make up only 2% of Iowa's population but are nearly 25% of the state's disfranchised citizens. This was the highest rate of disparity in the nation."

The Governor's executive order uses his power of clemency, which allows him to restore voting rights to individuals who have committed crimes. Although clemency was formerly granted on a case by case basis, the executive order creates a blanket restoration of voting rights as of July 4, 2005, that will include everyone who has completed incarceration and parole or probation. Nearly 50,000 people should have their eligibility restored under the order. The Department of Corrections will pass on information for the 29,000 individuals who are still under state supervision, once they have been discharged, in order to add them to the pool.

Under the new system, the number of formerly disfranchised people who will regain the right to vote will jump from approximately 500 people per year to 500 per month.

"The Governor's decisive action recognizes the right to vote as a central component of civic life, and moves Iowa out of the pantheon of states that cling to this antiquated law," said Ludovic Blain III, Associate Director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a pro-democracy organization and Right to Vote Campaign coalition member. "Now there are four — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia. They should immediately follow Iowa's lead."

I am very glad that Iowa is leading the way in protecting the voting rights of its citizens," said Spencer Overton, a law professor from George Washington University who specializes in voting rights. "I hope advocates, residents and other public officials make sure that everyone is educated about this policy and people know how to register as soon as they become eligible."

Because Iowa's secretary of state does not have records for people who lost the vote as a result of felony convictions before 1992, and existing state records are often incomplete and inaccurate, the Right to Vote campaign emphasizes the need for widespread public education. Potential voters should know about eligibility and the fact that voter registration is not automatic. The Right to Vote Campaign will assist local advocates with this crucial next step.

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The Right to Vote Campaign is a collaboration of eight national civil rights organizations working towards the end of felon disfranchisement through research, public education, voter registration and litigation. Member organizations include: the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action, The Sentencing Project, NAACP, NAACP LDF, People for the American Way Foundation, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. According to the Campaign, nearly five million people--1 in 43 adults--are disfranchised in the United States. Among African-Americans, 1 in 13, or 1.8 million people, are disfranchised. Over 600,000 women are denied the right to vote, and over half a million veterans are disfranchised.