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Opinion Why the Iowa caucuses are even whiter than you think

A mural brightens the side of a building in Newton, Iowa, on Wednesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Kira Lerner is a reporter for the Appeal who covers criminal justice, voting rights and civil rights.

As with every presidential election cycle when the Iowa caucuses approach, voters elsewhere have been left to wonder why such an unrepresentative state plays an outsize role in American democracy. Iowa voters are more rural than the national average, but the most notable demographic difference is Iowa’s whiteness: 90.7 percent of the population is white, compared with 76.5 percent nationally.

Yet the Democratic caucuses on Feb. 3 are going to be even whiter than that disparity suggests, because the state practices a de facto form of racial disenfranchisement: a lifetime voting ban for anyone ever convicted of a felony.

Just 4 percent of Iowa’s population is black, but blacks make up 26 percent of the state’s prison population. In 2016, a study by the Sentencing Project ranked Iowa third worst in the nation for its 1 in 17 incarceration rate of adult black males; the white/black differential was 11 to 1, also third worst nationally. (The disenfranchisement of Latinos is less pronounced; they make up 6.2 percent of Iowa’s population, and the Latino/white imprisonment ratio is 1.7 to 1.)

Thousands of black Iowa residents who have served time in prison will be barred from caucusing on Monday, because the state parties restrict participation to registered voters. Some of those banned are likely to have been excluded in error: Last year, the Des Moines Register reported that the state’s database of more than 69,000 felons barred from voting “contains systemic inaccuracies” that officials had known about for years but left unaddressed.

The racial-disenfranchisement problem is more than the inadvertent fallout from an era of racially skewed mass incarceration, it is the legacy of racist Jim Crow-era policies. “It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the expansion of suffrage to black men that felony disenfranchisement became a significant barrier to U.S. ballot boxes,” a report by the Brennan Center for Justice observed in 2017. During Reconstruction, white lawmakers in at least 13 states, especially in the South, enacted broad felony disenfranchisement laws. At the same time, criminal laws were passed with the intention of locking up newly enfranchised black men.

The discriminatory practices have continued, in various forms, down the years, with the result that, as the Brennan Center report noted, “one in every 13 voting-age African Americans cannot vote.”

More than 160 years after Iowa’s constitution was broadly written to bar “a person convicted of any infamous crime” from voting, the state maintains the policy. Iowans who have completed felony sentences can have their right to vote restored only if they file an application with the governor. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has simplified the application and recently vowed to review the backlog of 347 applications currently on her desk before the caucuses.

Every state, other than Maine and Vermont (where felons can vote even while incarcerated), practices a degree of disenfranchisement, based on criteria such as the nature of the crime involved or the completion of parole or probation. A study by the Sentencing Project in 2016 found that 6 million Americans were barred from the polls by felony disenfranchisement. Many states are rethinking their policies, and even some of those with harsher rules are either relaxing them, as in Florida, or their governors are acting unilaterally to enfranchise people with felony convictions, seemingly confident of the public’s support.

Florida voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore rights to most people who have completed their sentences, though the rollout has been complicated by a new law requiring released prisoners to pay all conviction-related fees and fines before their voting rights are restored.

Kentucky and Virginia still have felon disenfranchisement laws on the books as draconian as Iowa’s, but their governors have moved to override them. In December, newly elected Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) issued an executive order that restored the right to vote to about 140,000 people with nonviolent felony convictions who had completed their sentences. Last year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced the restoration of voting rights for more than 22,000 felons, though he has plenty more to go before catching former governor Terry McAuliffe, who restored the rights of more than 173,000 Virginians before leaving office in 2018.

But none of those states plays nearly as crucial a role as Iowa in the nation’s presidential nomination process. Reynolds expressed support last year for a constitutional amendment to permanently restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, but the amendment, after passing the House with bipartisan support, stalled in a Republican-led Senate committee.

Shortly before Julián Castro dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination this month, he decried the early-primary process, saying, “There’s no reason that Iowa and New Hampshire, that hardly have any black people or people of color, should always go first.” If Iowa wanted to show a good-faith effort to increase black participation in its caucuses, the state could start by ending felon disenfranchisement before the 2024 election rolls around.

Read more:

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Karen Tumulty: Iowa could pick the big winner. But what’s really likely is more of a muddle.

Jennifer Rubin: Do Iowans want to eliminate candidates or select a president?

Jennifer Rubin: What are Democratic primary voters thinking?

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