Of all the states in the country, only two permanently bar felons from voting and require them to petition the state to restore that right.
One is Kentucky, the other is Iowa.
Earlier in 2019, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds joined the effort to change Iowa law by amending the constitution to automatically restore voting rights for felons who complete their prison sentences.
Though the bill sailed through the House of Representatives with a 95-2 vote, it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During her Condition of the State address in January, Reynolds said restoring felons’ voting rights was a priority of her administration. In March, she announced a streamlined application for people who want to have their rights restored. The new application is shorter, and it no longer asks the applicant to submit a criminal background check or the $15 fee for it to be performed.
“Iowans believe in second chances and we should help those individuals who want to re-enter society by restoring their voting rights, offering in-demand training, or encouraging additional education,” Reynolds said.
Is The Bill Dead?
Despite its failure in the Senate, the effort to amend the constitution isn’t over.
Pat Garrett, communications director for the governor’s office, said Reynolds planned to make a push for the amendment again in the new legislative session that begins in January.
Many Democratic legislators have pointed out that the governor could restore felon voting rights with an executive order. But that’s a path she’s previously said she doesn’t want to take.
In the past, Gov. Tom Vilsack used an executive order to accomplish the same thing, but Gov. Terry Branstad reversed it when he took office.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said Reynolds could enact the executive order as a stopgap measure while the constitutional amendment made its way through the Legislature.
How It Failed
Hogg serves on Senate Judiciary Committee and was on the three-person subcommittee that first looked at the felon voting rights amendment. It passed there with two votes.
“Then it goes to committee. It’s on the agenda. [Republicans] choose not to do it,” he said.
Because the committee didn’t take up the bill, it never made it to the full Senate. When Reynolds pursues the issue again, the amendment will be reintroduced.
“I think the Republicans were split and they made the choice not to. You know, their committee and chamber leadership made the choice not to bring it up,” Hogg said. “They wanted more Republican votes to pass it.”
From the House of Representatives, where the measure passed almost unanimously, Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said she was uncertain about the future of restoring felons’ voting rights.
“Since it already passed the House, my guess is the House ‘Rs’ are going to take the position that, unless the Senate ‘Rs’ are willing to do something, they’re not going to do it again,” Wolfe said. “They already did it. And they’re not going to want to deal with it again.”
Payment To Victims
Senate Republicans have called for more clarity on how restitution — payments to victims of crimes — would factor into restoring a felon’s voting rights. Reynold’s proposal did not specifically address that issue.
“I think the governor has been pretty adamant that she did not want to move forward with something that would tie the restoration of voting rights to complete payment of all outstanding restitution and court costs,” Wolfe said.
Because the enforcement and requirements of court payments are arbitrary and based on where someone lives, Wolfe said restitution shouldn’t be a barrier to voting rights.
“Where it gets tricky is with victim restitution,” she said.
Wolfe said she could think of at least one victims’ rights group that said restitution shouldn’t be a barrier to someone getting their rights back.
She suggested a shift to a compensation program instead, where the state pays restitution and then seeks repayment from the offender.
“They [state government] pay the victim the restitution, and then they collect it from the criminal defendant, the same way the state tries to collect fines,” Wolfe said.
Why This Matters
In 48 states, felons are able to have their voting rights restored without petitioning the governor of their state.
Reynolds has said the ability of one person to decide whether to restore someone’s voting rights was too much power for one person.
And in Iowa, the intersection of felons and voting can get complicated.
Here, felons can be prosecuted for voting, even if they don’t know they aren’t allowed to, or if a poll worker fails to tell them. Sometimes, people who had their rights restored through the governor are still barred from casting a ballot and have to fill out a provisional one.
And some have been wrongly flagged as a felon and blocked from voting.
“The problem is there are people who believe taking away voting rights is an effective form of punishment for people,” Hogg said. “They want to make sure people are punished before they get their rights back.”
That’s the wrong approach, Hogg said. He argued restoring voting rights increases public safety.
“The broader reason why we should restore voting rights is that it is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent future crime,” he said. “If somebody is connected to the community, coming out of prison, and voting is one of those connections that makes it less likely they will commit future crimes. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t commit crime, but it is one of the proven methods to reduce recidivism.”
The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, a nonprofit in Des Moines, has also worked on this issue for some time. Founder Connie Ryan said there was a fundamental reason why felons should have their voting rights restored.
“As a matter of justice for people who have done all that has been asked of them by the state, fulfilled their duty to be in prison and atone for the mistake that they made,” Ryan said. “Coming out of prison, they should be able to fulfill their civil right to vote just like any other person.”
Ryan said there often were misconceptions about what was considered a felony.
“Felonies are not just violent crimes,” she said. “And so people need to understand that they could be talking about their neighbor who simply made a wrong choice as a young person.”
By Nikoel Hytrek