IOWA CITY -- Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad announced changes Friday that will make it easier for thousands of felons to regain their voting rights, removing requirements that had been criticized by civil rights groups as unnecessary and burdensome.
Iowa will remain one of four states where felons have to apply to the governor to have their rights to vote and hold public office restored after completing their terms of prison and parole. But Branstad, a Republican, said that applicants do not have to pay off all their court costs, fines and restitution to become eligible, as was the case previously, as long as they are making a "good faith effort" to do so.
Branstad also announced that applicants will no longer have to obtain their credit history reports and submit them to his office, a requirement he imposed in January 2011, which was believed to be the only one of its kind. Branstad aides had argued those reports were needed to verify that an applicant did not have any outstanding court debts.
Critics such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union said the credit history checks deterred applicants. They argued one's finances should have no bearing on voting rights and the verification checks were unnecessary since applicants also had to submit court records showing debts were paid.
But the application process still won't be easy. It will include answering 29 questions about their criminal offenses and other matters, submitting documentation related to their efforts to pay off court debts and paying $15 for an Iowa criminal history check.
The announcement comes one month after Branstad met with NAACP officials and signaled he was open to simplifying the process. At the time, he said that anyone who was current on their restitution payments could apply -- even as the application on the governor's website said such judgments must be fully satisfied.
The Associated Press reported last month that fewer than 20 felons had successfully navigated the process and had their rights restored since Branstad took office in January 2011, out of roughly 13,000 who had completed prison and parole terms in that time. Records detailed roadblocks facing former offenders who were confused about whether they lost their voting rights and what they had to do to get them back.
The ACLU of Iowa called the changes "clear and important progress" in removing requirements that intimidated and confused applicants. The change for restitution payments alone will make thousands of additional Iowans eligible to apply, the group noted.
"These changes are good public policy, because evidence shows people who participate in the civic life of their communities by voting are far less likely to be rearrested," ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said.
Hilary Shelton, an NAACP senior vice president, said Branstad's changes did not go far enough, noting he reversed a policy started in 2005 by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that automatically restored felons' voting rights once they left state supervision.
"It's great to see this inching forward after making such a huge leap backwards in changing the policy in Iowa to disenfranchise former felons," he said. "But he still misses the point. Iowa needs to change this policy. At the time somebody walks out of prison, they should be able to register and vote if they so choose."
Branstad rejected that approach, saying that automatically restoring voting rights without ensuring offenders are taking responsibility for their crimes "would damage the balance between the rights and responsibility of citizens."
The National Conference of State Legislatures says Kentucky, Florida and Virginia also require felons to apply to the governor to have rights restored. Most other states allow felons to automatically regain their voting rights once they complete their sentences.