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Profile: Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack was a participant or observer in the following events:

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D-IA) announces that he will sign an order on July 4 that restores voting rights for all Iowa felons who have completed their prison sentences. Since 1846, Iowa has had what voting rights advocates call one of the most restrictive disenfranchisement laws in the nation (see 1802-1857). Felons should “re-engage” with society, Vilsack says, and restoring their right to vote will help in that process. Some 80,000 Iowans will be affected by the order. Voting rights advocates say that since Iowa and Nebraska (see March 2005) have moved to reinstate voting rights by convicted felons, other states should make similar efforts. Some 4.7 million Americans are ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions, including a half-million war veterans. 1.4 million of these ineligible voters are African-American males. Iowa was one of five states, including Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, that deny the vote to any citizen convicted of a felony or an aggravated misdemeanor. Previously, Iowa required convicted felons who wanted their right to vote reinstated to petition the governor’s office, which would then forward the application to the State Division of Criminal Investigation, which would in turn send the application to the parole board for a recommendation. The process could take up to six months to complete. About 600 ex-felons petitioned for restoration in 2004. After he signs the order, Vilsack says, about 600 felons will be restored to the voting rolls each month. The Iowa Department of Corrections must submit monthly lists of eligible ex-felons to Vilsack’s office. While blacks make up only 2 percent of Iowa’s population, 19 percent of those denied the vote are black, prompting many to say that the law is discriminatory. Catherine Weiss of the Brennan Center for Justice says, “This is a huge victory for voting rights and for civil rights.” Iowa was under tremendous pressure to overturn its ban after Nebraska ended its ban. Weiss says that Nebraska and Iowa were the only two states outside the former Confederate South to maintain such restrictive bans. Ryan King of the Sentencing Project, an organization working to reinstate the right to vote for felons across the nation, says: “The governor’s choice of doing this on July 4 is very symbolic. It’s a celebration of democracy.” Debra Breuklander, a former felon who joins Vilsack at the press conference, says the order goes beyond politics. Breuklander was convicted of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and was released from prison in June 2003. She now works as a nurse at a drug treatment center. “I have children that are still in school; I have a grandson that will be going to school,” she says. “Not even to be able to have a say-so in what goes on in the schools was driving me crazy.… If nobody hires you and you don’t feel like you’re a part of anything, all you will do is feel like you may as well go back to what you know, which is the drugs.” (Zernike 6/18/2005; American Civil Liberties Union 2008; ProCon 10/19/2010)


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