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‘Now I respect the privilege of voting’

Felon voting rights restored

Ashley Vaala knows what it’s like to lose everything, including her right to vote.

“Whenever someone commits a crime, you lose a lot of rights,” said Vaala, of Fort Dodge. “I spent four years in prison. I lost the right to see my kids every day. I lost the right to drive. You lose a lot of rights.”

Vaala spent four years in federal prison starting in 2008. She was convicted of possession of a controlled substance and conspiracy to possess and distribute a controlled substance.

But Vaala rebounded from her past crimes. She served her sentence. And when she got out, she wanted to help others avoid situations she found herself in.

So she started the Lotus Community Project, a homeless shelter for women and their children in Webster County.

Vaala has been clean from using methamphetamine since 2007. And the shelter she started in January 2019 continues to grow.

One year ago, she received a call from Gov. Kim Reynolds.

At first, she didn’t answer it because she didn’t recognize the number. When the same number called right back, she thought she better answer it.

“I answered it and it was the governor,” Vaala said. “She called me on my personal cell phone to tell me she reviewed my application and was happy to tell me that she restored my voting rights. She told me she read the things I wrote and was very proud of me for turning my life around. She just wished me well.

“She could have just sent a letter in the mail — they sent that, too — but she took the time to call me personally and I thought that was very special. Giving someone their rights back is something small probably to them, but it meant a lot to me that she made that phone call.”

Vaala had submitted her application to have her rights restored in March 2019. Her rights were restored in August 2019.

Now other convicted felons will have the hope of being able to vote if they complete their sentences.

That’s because Reynolds signed an executive order on Wednesday restoring felon voting rights.

“We’re pleased that finally tens of thousands of Iowans can now fully participate in their communities across Iowa,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer. “This is a victory for democracy in our state. Iowa no longer is the only state in the country to permanently and for life ban its citizens from voting following any felony conviction.

“For almost a decade, Iowans with felony convictions were barred from voting, even after completing their sentences. Now, following probation and parole, these Iowans can once again register to vote and participate in elections for their children’s school boards, for their city council members, for their state representatives, and more.”

Felons who complete their sentences and probation will have their voting rights restored. The right to vote is not contingent on paying off fees and fines or other associated debts.

However, those convicted of various forms of homicide were not included in the governor’s order.

“We will continue to work to ensure that all Iowans who have completed their sentences can once again participate in the democracy that so profoundly affects them,” Stringer said. “While we’re delighted that immediately so many Iowans are eligible to register and vote, it’s important that we continue to pursue a more permanent fix to the problem of felony disenfranchisement in our state. Another governor could issue a different executive order to reverse this current executive order. That’s why we’ll continue to advocate for an amendment to the Iowa Constitution.”

Vaala, 35, cast her vote for the first time in the June primary.

“It was a big deal for me,” she said. “I never voted before I became a felon, either.”

Vaala, although she disagrees, understands why some people don’t think hers or other felons’ rights should be restored.

“I understand them,” she said. “I understand why people feel that way. I can see their side of that argument. There is a good argument there. However, I think coming from a place of grace and that people do change and do turn their lives around, I see people I knew way back when in the early 2000s when they were doing drugs and they are doing great today.

“Very few people I know are doing what we were doing back then. People do become productive and do deserve to have a voice in who is making decisions that can directly affect them. I work, I pay taxes, I do everything a normal person does. I deserve to have a voice in those decisions that impact my family and I. So I would just ask them to have a little grace.”

Vaala was not able to vote for a total of eight years.

“That’s a long time when you think of someone who was an addict and was selling drugs to maintain their habit. Eight years is a long time not to vote. If you can successfully make it through your prison sentence then you should have that right.”

Even before her rights were restored, Vaala started becoming more passionate about issues in the community in recent years.

“I’ve little by little became more involved in political issues,” she said. “Having a voice and saying my opinions. I mail the senators all the time saying this is how I feel about it. Even before I had the right to cast a ballot I was talking to my legislators and they were listening. It’s empowering to do that. And now take it a step further.”

When Vaala voted for the first time, she admits she didn’t know how the process was going to work.

“When I went that day to vote I had no idea what I was doing and they showed me exactly what I needed to do and it felt really empowering to check the names of the people I support in my community or in my state who share my values and where I stand on the issues,” she said. “It’s led to a lot of conversations and a lot of goodness. I didn’t used to care who was making the decisions. Now I respect the privilege of voting.”

November will mark the first time Vaala has voted in a general election.

“I can’t wait,” she said. “I am so excited to vote. For my birthday (later this month) I told my husband I want him to register to vote.

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