2020 IOWA LEGISLATIVE PREVIEW

Gov. Kim Reynolds optimistic lawmakers will strike deal for felon voting rights

Gov. Kim Reynolds is interviewed by Gazette reporters in her office at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec.
Gov. Kim Reynolds is interviewed by Gazette reporters in her office at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Fourth in a series of articles about issues likely to come up for debate in the 2020 Iowa Legislature.

DES MOINES — The same sticking points remain as last year, but Gov. Kim Reynolds nonetheless says she is optimistic lawmakers this year will address the restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

Reynolds has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would automatically restore an Iowa felon’s right to vote upon completion of his or her sentence.

The Republican governor made the pitch during last year’s Condition of the State address at the outset of the 2019 session, but her proposed measure stalled in the Iowa Legislature. The Legislature starts this year’s session Monday.

Iowa is the only state in the nation that requires felons to apply to the governor to have voting rights restored.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do. And it’s one of my priorities. Sometimes you don’t get it the first year when you talk about it,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s the right thing to do, and I’m going to do everything I can to make the case. And I feel pretty confident that we can get them there.”

She has said she feels no one person should hold such authority and that she is a believer in second chances.

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Reynolds could make the change during her tenure at least by executive order. But she has insisted a constitutional amendment is the better route because it is more difficult to alter later.

A constitutional amendment must be passed twice by state lawmakers — with an election between votes — and then by a vote of Iowans. An executive order can be undone by the next governor.

Reynolds’ proposal hit a roadblock last year in the Iowa Senate, where Republican members of the judiciary committee wanted to add stipulations to the restoration of felons’ voting rights, but could not reach an agreement on what those stipulations should be.

The sticking points that held up the proposal last year are whether perpetrators of certain violent crimes — like murder or rape, as possible examples — should never have their voting rights restored; and whether felons should be required to pay all fines, court fees and restitution before having their rights restored.

Reynolds said she is comfortable discussing the exemption of certain crimes. But she said she is less supportive of creating requirements that would make the process harder for felons than the current system.

Now, though felons must apply to the governor to have their voting rights restored, they are not required to have all court fees and fines paid in full. They must only show they are making an effort to pay those costs.

Requiring felons to have all court fees, restitution and fines repaid before having their voting rights restored would be even more burdensome, advocates warn.

“My goal is not to go there. I don’t want to make it harder than it already is,” Reynolds said. “With a new process that we would put in place, we can show them how we’re addressing that and that they are making payments. But this is part of making them whole, making them feel like a citizen, helping them in their re-entry process.”

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Sen. Jack Whitver, the Republican leader of the Iowa Senate from Ankeny, said defining those exempted crimes will be crucial to getting the GOP-majority Senate to support the proposal.

“Obviously there were some major sticking points in the Senate (last year). I would expect it will be part of the discussion again this year. Whether we can get that done or not, I don’t know,” Whitver said. “One of the things that I personally really want to make sure of is that we’re thinking about is the victims of these crimes as well. And there are certain crimes you shouldn’t get your voting rights back.

“In order to get something done in the Iowa Senate, we really have to define what those crimes are.”

Todd Prichard, the leader of the minority House Democrats from Charles City, continued Democrats’ calls for Reynolds to restore felons’ voting rights by executive order while lawmakers continue to work on the constitutional amendment.

Because of the lengthy process for amending the state constitution, even if lawmakers find agreement, restoration is at a minimum of two to three years away.

“This hesitation is preventing people who, by right, should be able to vote,” Prichard said. “Time is of the essence, in some ways, for people who are denied the (right to) vote.”

Reynolds also during 2019 appointed a working group — including advocates and state agency heads — to develop criminal justice reform proposals.

The group was tasked with finding ways of reducing the rate of individuals who complete a sentence but reoffend and return to prison, and to eliminate barriers for people who complete their sentence to re-enter society.

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“Even small steps, to begin with, I think, let people know I’m serious about this. And we’re not stopping. We’re going to keep working on it until we get it right,” Reynolds said. “So I think it’s important to have some small wins along the way to get you motivated and really drives that belief that we can change things.”

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