Friday, August 05, 2005

Vilsack Restores Voting Rights for Felons

It's been a month since Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) issued an executive order giving tens of thousands of Hawkeye State felons the right to vote. Experts expect the change to benefit Democrats, at least at the margin, but say it is too early to know how it will echo in the perennial battleground state.

Vilsack issued the order July 4, restoring the vote to about 50,000 felons and ending what had been one of the nation's toughest disenfranchisement laws. The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to decide what, if any, restrictions to place on felons' balloting. Two states, Maine and Vermont, don't have any, allowing felons to cast votes from prison. Most states have restrictions based on a number of factors, such as whether someone is incarcerated and what crimes they've committed. Iowa was one of a handful of states that have lifetime bans, where felons could not vote unless their individual applications were approved by the state government.

Vilsack's new policy automatically restores the vote to those who have completed their sentences, paroles and probations -- a population that is disproportionately black and poor. Those demographic groups tend to vote Democratic, potentially affecting the state's political balance. Bush won Iowa last year by 10,000 votes.

But the governor's order is being challenged in court, and the state's Republican House leader has said the chamber will take up the issue when it reconvenes in January.

Also uncertain is whether felons would use their new right in significant numbers. "It's a hard question to answer," said Ryan King, research associate at the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that supports the order. He said many felons, along with many local election officials, are unaware or misinformed about the particulars of disenfranchisement laws.

The Iowa Republican Party, which opposed the governor's order, said the real winners are Vilsack, who has been eyeing a bid for the White House, and other Democrats trying to defend the state's presidential caucuses from complaints that the mostly white state is unrepresentative of the party or nation.

Vilsack is still in the doghouse with this blog due to his DLC post and his recent speech pandering to From (see previous post). But I'll take whatever liberalism he wants to throw around.

BTW, the Republican Party response just kinda touches your heart, doesn't it?

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