For our second blog challenge, we were asked to design a solution that would address a gap in legal access for a historically marginalized community of color in our locality. While thinking in the abstract about a complex legal solution is enticing, and perhaps more attractive in academic circles; I wanted to instead take this moment to amplify a current fight for legal access that is being fought in my home state of Iowa. What is being fought for is the most basic of legal rights: the right to vote.
On June 15th, Governor Kim Reynolds made a promise to sign an executive order that would restore the right to vote for people with previous felony convictions. This executive order would erase Iowa’s status as the only state in the country that permanently disenfranchises people with a felony conviction. The calls for this order came after the Iowa State Senate failed to act on a bill that would have done the same. However, despite Reynold’s promises, she has shown no urgency, stating that the order would come sometime between late summer and early fall. And while I’m sure the Governor is very busy, there must surely time to draft an order during her trips to the nation’s capital and throughout the state of Iowa. Des Moines Black Lives Matter (who can be found on Twitter @DesMoinesBLM), have continued to push the Governor, hoping for an Executive Order by this Saturday, July 4th. The following paragraphs are an incomplete illustration of why this order is so desperately needed.
Iowa’s Broken Criminal Justice System
Iowa is a largely homogenous state, with white Iowans accounting for roughly 90% of the population. This lack of diversity has many negative side-effects, including the suppression of the struggles that people of color face. The recent waves of protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd have brought one of these suppressed struggles to the forefront: the duality of Iowa’s criminal justice system, which operates under different rules, depending on the color of your skin.
One of the most jarring examples of this system is the disproportionate policing of marijuana usage in Iowa. Despite similar rates of usage, a Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for marijuana possession (see page 32 of the report). And as you might expect, this disproportionate policing is reflective of the broader trends of Iowa’s criminal justice system. As it currently stands, Black Iowans are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Iowans, which is the third-worst disparity in the nation. Whether this racism is intentionally inflicted by law enforcement (like the video seen below, which resulted in a $75,000 settlement due to the officers’ misconduct), or an unintended result of a massively broken system is a debate that is fruitless for the time being. Because regardless of the motive of these disparities, the reality is that they’ve always existed, they continue to exist, and they can not be fixed until we acknowledge them.
However, acknowledgment is only the beginning. Once we acknowledge the disparities of this broken criminal justice system, it also becomes our responsibility to listen to the voices of those most affected by the system. In this case, Des Moines Black Lives Matter has made the simplest of requests: that the 1 in 10 Black Iowans who are currently disenfranchised due to a previous felony conviction be allowed to vote. This request needs no further debate nor deliberation.
Addressing the racial inequalities of this nation will be at the forefront of citizen’s minds as they approach the ballot box this year. And in no world does it make sense to exclude the opinions of some of those who have been most affected by these injustices. For that reason, it is clear:
Sign or Resign.