Iowa is now the only state in the nation that disenfranchises all people who commit felonies and have served their time.
Today, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order to restore voting rights to felons in the state, leaving Iowa alone as the only state permanently barring felons from that right.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has stated that restoring felon voting rights is a priority for her administration, but legislation to change the state constitution hasn’t made it out of the Iowa Senate despite passing easily through the Iowa House of Representatives.
Reynolds could also issue an executive order to restore felon voting rights in the state, but she’s previously asserted she doesn’t want to take that path because it’s not a decision a single person should make.
Zach Wahls, a state senator from Coralville who represents District 37, said the governor doesn’t have to sacrifice one to do the other.
“She can go forward with executive orders and also continue to encourage the Legislature to make the legislative fix so that this is not at the whim of the governor,” he said. “But if she believes this is the right thing, she should do it. It really is that simple.”
Wahls is in his first term as a state senator and he serves on five committees, none of which decided the amendment last time. This year, the amendment failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee and never made it to the full Senate.
Still, Wahls said he hopes the Senate will have a chance this time.
“I don’t see a partisan reason, I don’t see an ideological reason why this shouldn’t advance,” he said.
This year, Reynolds did take action to make the application process easier for former felons who want their right to vote restored.
Instead of having to fill out the whole application, people being released from prison will be given the new application with most of the information filled out. The people seeking their rights will also have guidance about how to answer the remaining two questions they need to fill in.
The new process will be rolled out today, the same day the Kentucky governor signs his executive order.
In March, Reynolds also said her goal is to review and decide on applications within a month from receiving them.
Still, relatively few people have gone through the voting rights restoration process in past years. From May 2017 to about June 2019, Reynolds had restored rights to 150 Iowans. About 400 applications have been submitted and about 300 are pending according to the governor’s spokesman.
The governor plans to push the amendment again. This time, the bill is only required to pass the Senate since it didn’t make it out of committee in 2019. If passed in 2020, the bill must pass through both chambers again, unchanged, in one of the next two legislative sessions. The issue would then appear in front of voters.
In 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed an executive order restoring voting rights to former felons who complete their sentences.
Six years later, upon taking office, Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded Vilsack’s executive order. In 2015, he did announce he’d made the process easier, but some reports show it wasn’t by much.
“It’s an embarrassment. It’s a distinction of the worst kind,” Wahls said about Iowa’s status as the only state in the nation that puts a lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions.
“It’s something that we should have fixed last year and it’s something that we absolutely should fix in this upcoming year.”
12/13/19 UPDATE: Today the ACLU of Iowa reached out to Starting Line with a statement from Mark Stringer, the group’s executive director, on Iowa’s lack of movement on restoring felon voting rights.
Stringer notes how the policy disproportionately affects communities of color and harms them by removing them from the voting bloc. The statement also called for action in the Senate.
“Fortunately, there is bipartisan support to right this wrong,” Stringer wrote. “A bill in the Iowa Legislature, HJR 14, would allow amending the Iowa Constitution to restore voting rights of Iowans with felony convictions. It needs to be voted out of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Iowa Senate. We support this bill, which is the one permanent way to change the law.
It’s important that the Legislature not alter the bill to make exceptions. There has been talk, for example, of restoring voting rights only after the full payment of restitution. But the right to vote should not come with a price tag, with higher-income Iowans able to vote and lower-income Iowans unable to do so.”
by Nikoel Hytrek