They Served Their Time and Now They’re Working to Win Back Right to Vote

The Iowa City Press Citizen, 16 January 2019, by Hillary Ojeda]

Doren Walker and Todd Williams, of Kalona and Mt. Pleasant respectively, lost their right to vote after being convicted of felonies in the state of Iowa. But they’re working to change that. They’re two of more than 52,000 Iowans unable to vote despite serving their time in the state, according to Washington, D.C.-based research center The Sentencing Project. Felon voting rights made national headlines in November when Florida residents successfully voted in a measure to restore voting rights for its convicted felons, with a few exceptions. In her Condition of the State address Tuesday, Governor Kim Reynolds mentioned the Florida result and said she doesn’t “believe voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person.”

Iowa is one of three states that takes away the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony forever, Gov. Reynolds would like to restore that right. 

She said she’s starting the process to change the constitutional amendment stripping the right to vote for those convicted of felonies.  

Walker and Williams, however, aren’t waiting for the constitutional amendment to be implemented. They submitted their applications to the governor’s clemency program in October and are waiting for a response. Reynolds said she’s restored the right to vote to 88 individuals through the program, a process advocates say is “arduous.” 

“It was the most complicated, convoluted thing I’ve seen,” Williams said, adding that he tried to submit his application years ago but was discouraged by the paperwork. 

He said it wasn’t until Walker convinced him to take up the process again that he did it. 

With the help of a University of Iowa graduate student and the advocacy program for formerly incarcerated folks, Inside Out Reentry Community, the two collected their legal documents and sent them to the Office of the Governor. 

“There’s a misconception that felons never can, and never will [vote]” said Dan Tallman, of the UI master’s program of social work. “But it’s possible to get your rights restored.”

As part of his studies, he’s doing his social work practicum, similar to an internship, at the Inside Out Reentry Community this year. 

He said the application process for restoring voting rights is more complicated than it needs to be. And as for Reynolds’ proposal, he said she could restore voting rights to felons through an executive order like former Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack, rather than through a constitutional amendment which could take longer. 


Felons were allowed the right to vote, after they served their time, when Vilsack issued an executive order in July 2005. Former Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded the order in 2011. 

“It would have to go through two legislatures to pass,” Tallman said. In addition, a majority of voters would need to approve a ballot measure for the amendment to finally go through. Still, he said, he hopes it happens. 

“When we get there it will be a great thing,” he said. “But it still means people will be disenfranchised for another half-decade or so.” 

Michelle Heinz, Inside Out Reentry Community executive director, said not having the right to vote is difficult for the program’s members. 

“It’s extremely frustrating to them because they want to be part of the political process,” she said.