116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — It had been roughly two decades since he was allowed to vote, and Eric Harris felt it was important that he cast a ballot again.
The Iowa City man, now in his 40s, lost his right to vote in Iowa when he was convicted of three felony offenses between 1998 and 2014. He regained it in 2020 when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an executive order that automatically reinstated the right to vote of Iowans like Harris, who had been convicted of felonies but completed their sentences.
So Harris, his rights restored, voted in the 2020 election.
“I spent almost 20 years not being able to vote because of felony convictions,” Harris said. “I just wanted to vote, and I was able to vote, and it was an important vote. The 2020 vote was a very important vote.”
Before Reynolds’ executive order, Iowans who had been convicted of felonies were required to individually petition the governor to restore their voting rights. At the time, Iowa was the only state with a requirement that restrictive.
After Reynolds issued her executive order, 3,955 Iowans who had previously been made ineligible to vote due to felony convictions re-registered to vote before that year’s November election, according to data from the state elections office.
Of those 3,955 newly re-registered voters, 3,041 — which is 77 percent, or nearly 4 out of every 5 who re-registered — followed through and voted in the 2020 general election, according to the state data.
That state data covers only those Iowans who had the right to vote, lost it upon conviction, and then re-registered to vote after having that right restored by Reynolds’ executive order.
A spokesman said the state elections office does not have broader data on how many Iowans became eligible to vote with the executive order even if they had not registered before, constraining the ability to determine what percentage of all Iowans who became newly eligible to register under the executive order.
Various reports in 2020, including one from the issue advocacy group The Sentencing Project, estimated Reynolds’ executive order as restored the voting rights of 35,000 to 45,000 Iowans.
Of the 3,041 Iowans with felony convictions who re-registered and voted in 2020, 30 percent registered as Republicans, 29 percent registered as Democrats, and 38 percent registered as no-party voters, according to state data.
Harris believes so strongly that Iowans convicted of felonies should have the right to vote and should exercise that right, that he has spent the past three-plus years encouraging others to register and vote.
“People right now, with things that’s going on in the country right now, people might not be happy,” Harris said. “But when I was able to vote in 2020, that was important to me.”
When Reynolds issued the executive order, she called it a matter of second chances and acknowledging inequalities in the justice system.
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of society and the free republic in which we live. When someone serves their sentence, they should have their right to vote restored automatically,” Reynolds said in a statement accompanying her executive order.
The journey to that executive order, however, started on a different path. Reynolds originally called for state lawmakers to propose an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would state that Iowans convicted of a felony would regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentences.
Reynolds favored the constitutional amendment because it is a more permanent solution. Executive orders, in contrast, can be undone by the next governor.
That’s exactly what has happened with the issue of voting rights for Iowans convicted of felonies: Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005 issued an executive order automatically reinstating the voting rights of Iowans who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. But in 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad issued his own executive order, which required Iowans who have completed their sentences for felony convictions to individually petition the governor to have their voting rights restored.
But while a constitutional amendment was Reynolds’ preferred path, proposals bogged down in the Iowa Legislature, which is controlled by her fellow Republicans. In particular, Republicans in the Iowa Senate could not agree on what requirements should be added before a convicted voter had his or her rights restored.
After failed attempts in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, Reynolds resorted to the executive order just before the 2020 general election.
Reynolds said at the time that she would continue to advocate for a constitutional amendment, but the issue received little to no discussion from majority, agenda-setting Republicans in the 2021 or 2022 legislative sessions. Republican statehouse leaders said Reynolds’ executive order removed the urgency from the issue.
As to the proportionately low number of Iowans who re-registered and voted in 2020 after having that right restored, Harris said there can be many hurdles to persuading that population to vote again, including a distrust in government institutions.
Harris also said he believes the state could do more to inform and educate those Iowans about their restored voting rights, especially by meeting those Iowans where they are at community events.
The bottom line for Harris, and why he also supports a more permanent solution, is that voting rights should be automatically granted to those who have completed their sentences. He said that right should not be left to the whims of only the governor.
“If,” Harris said, “you live in this country and pay taxes and you paid your debt to society, you should be able to vote. That’s it.”
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