As Democratic candidates began a last minute blitz across Iowa on Friday evening, nearly a dozen men gathered in a cavernous YMCA meeting room in downtown Des Moines to have a conversation that felt a universe removed from the 2020 race.
They were part of one of the largest groups shut out of Monday’s caucus: people with felony convictions. Iowans are barred from voting for life once they commit a felony, and people can’t vote even if they committed a crime decades ago. The state’s policy, one of the strictest in the country, means more than 42,000 Iowans out of prison won’t have a say in choosing a presidential candidate. Almost 10% of the black voting age population can’t vote because of a felony conviction.
For decades, the Iowa caucuses have marked the beginning of the presidential primary, and often set the tone for the election year. But the event has come under increasing scrutiny for giving some voters – namely white and wealthy Iowans – outsized power in choosing the president in a state that’s already more than 90% white. Meanwhile, the physical and legal barriers built into the structure of the caucuses leave out large swaths of the population, whether they are disabled, work long hours, or were once convicted of a crime.
“When you know you can’t vote, you remove a certain segment of people from the political process,” said Mendoor Smith, one of the participants at the two hour meeting, organized by IMAGE 4 Lives, a mentorship and support group founded by Robert Pate, a former felon. “If they’re removed from the process, then they’re not learning anything. If they have children, then they’re not telling their children anything.”
Smith, 46, who got his bachelor’s degree after getting released from prison said he had been closely following the caucuses and has been going to rallies and encouraging others to caucus, even though he can’t.
A few miles north, Gretchen Brown-Waech was getting ready for a historic caucus designed to serve another community often sidelined in the political dialogue: the 300,000 voting-age Iowans with disabilities.
For decades the population has struggled to take part in the caucuses, which requires Iowans to physically show up at a location and spend hours choosing a candidate. Brown-Waech, who is deaf, first tried to caucus in the 1990s, but when people started talking over each other, she found it overwhelming and left early. She didn’t try again until 2016 with the help of a friend because she felt the choice was so important.
Now, on Monday, after pressing state Democratic party officials, Brown-Waech is leading the first ever Iowa caucus in American Sign Language. She expects about 20 people to come to the event on Monday, some from hours away, including a deaf couple in their 60s that has never voted. “Anytime anyone who is not part of the mainstream is shut out of the political process, our country loses,” said Brown-Waech. “If we don’t design something for people on the margins, someone will always be left out.”
Since 2016, advocates have been pushing the Iowa Democratic party to address obstacles like transportation, navigating crowded spaces, and seating that people with disabilities face to caucusing. The party has introduced some solutions – like allowing some groups to hold satellite caucuses in their homes or accessible locales.
“We’ve made it easier for Iowans to request accommodations, get in the room faster, and caucus at a site that’s more convenient to them,” said Mandy McClure, a spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic party, in a statement. “Expanding participation has been at the heart of all of these changes.”
But many advocates say the party’s approach has been abysmal, noting that a staffer handling disability outreach wasn’t hired until January.
“Because there’s such a lack of understanding about this constituency, not only in the Democratic party, but just systematically, there’s a reticence to engage in the process of making spaces more inclusive and accessible,” said Reyma McDeid, executive director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living. “The thought is, ‘it’s going to be confusing, it’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be time consuming. Let’s just put this off.’”
That places undue burden on people with disabilities to create their own caucuses, said Emmanuel Smith, a disability rights advocate who works at Disability Rights Iowa. Smith, who has brittle bone disease and uses an electric wheelchair, said they had to travel over an hour each way to caucus in 2016.
This year, Smith is hosting a caucus event at their house. But they’ve had to spend time learning the rules for caucuses and on Monday, they will have to leave work early to set up. “The very people who need their voices heard the most in our democratic system are facing all these barriers. They’re often the populations that are going to be directly threatened or bolstered by the policies that get implemented,” Smith said.
As Monday approached, Brown-Waech worked on the final touches to the American Sign Language caucus she was planning. She was making sure that people knew to arrive on time and wanted to make a video explaining how it would work for the attendees, but had yet to receive their information from the state Democratic party.
Brown-Waech is hoping her single ASL caucus will evolve to be 15 or 20 during the next time around. But for the men in YMCA room, the ability to participate remains out of reach.
While Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, supports a constitutional amendment to end the policy, a push to put it on the ballot failed last year. Reynolds has declined to follow the lead of the governors of Kentucky and Virginia in issuing an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to some people with felonies once they complete their sentences. Currently, the only way for someone to have their voting rights restored is to have Reynolds approve their right to vote on an individual basis after they’ve completed their sentences entirely, including probation and parole.
Over the last month, Reynolds’ office has reviewed more than 400 applications, a sliver of the population in question. Until there’s a sweeping reform, Iowa will continue to leave out tens of thousands of people. People like Aundrey Roberts, 44, who was released in 2017 and has never voted in his life.
“It sends the message that once you’re a felon you basically are nothing,” he said.