Voting rights have been a topic of heated discussion across America in recent weeks – exposing voter suppression tactics, ensuring the United States Postal Service has the funding and infrastructure to process millions of mail ballots, guaranteeing all Americans equal access to the polls. In Iowa, the Des Moines chapter of Black Lives Matter pushed to extend equal access to formerly incarcerated residents, and when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Executive Order 7 on August 5, their demand became a reality.
Though the Executive Order is widely seen as a victory for the group, it was a hard-won achievement. Representatives from Des Moines BLM first met with Reynolds earlier in the summer and secured her verbal commitment. In June, she signed a law that cleared the way to end the state’s felon voting ban, but it took more than meetings to move things along.
“This never came to fruition till concerned Iowans took to the streets and demanded to be heard,” said Yena Balekyani, an organizer within the group. “That is why concerned folks take to the street. It is a type of accountability to those who swore to serve us with all their consciousness.”
She credits Representative Ras Smith, a first-term Democrat serving in the Iowa House, for his accessibility and willingness to answer questions about existing laws and steps they could take to affect change. It was Smith who played a key role in delivering the final draft of the Executive Order to Reynolds’ desk.
Still, Executive Order 7 wasn’t a complete win. Formerly incarcerated people are expected to pay restitution fees before regaining the right to vote, meaning that those without means could still end up disenfranchised. The order also excludes individuals with convictions for homicide or sex crimes.
“The ultimate goal is that any rightful citizen, who pays any kind of tax to [their] government, has a choice in who represents them at any level of government. Voting should not be conditional,” Balekyani said. “If we are counting folks in prison as part of the Census, they should be able to decide who represents them because decisions those representatives will make will definitely impact their livelihoods in prison.”
Thus, there’s still work to be done to ensure that Executive Order 7 isn’t as far as Iowa goes. Additionally, Balekyani stressed that Des Moines BLM would do everything in its power to save and improve Black lives in Des Moines.
“The city needs to protect its residents from these awful evictions and our state in general needs to stop putting legality on moral and human issues like houselessness and those who suffer from mental illnesses and drug addiction and abuse.”
She also expressed concern about protecting children from vulnerable communities and helping individuals and businesses in Black communities flourish. Additionally, Des Moines BLM will focus on visiting the polls and spreading the word about the importance of voting.
One place they’re hoping to make an impact sooner than later is with the Des Moines City Council. In mid-August, protestors traveled to councilmembers’ homes to make their voices heard. Balekyani noted that councilmembers’ decisions impact Des Moines residents in many ways but suggested they first take steps toward criminal justice reform.
“They can start by denouncing the racist and violent police actions, call for an investigation, and demand that charges be dropped off for all protestors who were practicing their constitutional rights.”
And once the election is over, even if the Biden-Harris ticket wins in November, Des Moines BLM still plans to hold elected officials accountable.
“As long as those who swear to serve do not serve us diligently, we will always take it to the streets, and all the way to the polls when the opportunity presents itself.”