DES MOINES — Legislation defining “discharge of sentence” received bipartisan support in the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, helping clear the way for approval of a proposed constitutional amendment to restore felons’ voting rights.
On a 14-5 vote, with all Republicans present voting “yes” and five of the committee’s nine Democrats voting “no,” Senate File 2348 will move to the House floor.
The bill, approved 37-11 by the Senate, would require that felons, before regaining the right to vote, would have to complete their sentence, including probation and parole, and pay restitution owed to a victim or victim’s family.
They would not be required to pay restitution to a company, corporation or government to regain their voting rights.
Felons would not be eligible for restoration of their voting rights if they have been convicted of murder, child endangerment resulting in the death of a minor, serious sex offenses or if they are on the sex offender registry, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, appreciated that the bill was part of a process for senators to move forward on a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights. The House approved that amendment last year.
An amendment to the state constitution must be approved during two sessions of the Iowa Legislature separated by an election, then by a statewide public vote.
However, Wolfe questioned the constitutionality about the language of SF 2348 and whether it clarified the current felon voting rights restoration or “is just going to perpetuate what is currently a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about who can or can’t vote.”
The constitutional question may be resolved before voters are asked to ratify the amendment, she said.
“As far as the lack of certainty,” Wolfe said, “I’ll be honest, it can’t be any worse than it is right now. It might make it a little bit better.”
The constitutional issues that resulted in a federal court ruling against Florida’s discharge of sentence requirements shouldn’t be compared to Iowa’s, Kaufmann said. He expects the ruling — that restitution requirements similar to those in SF 2348 were unconstitutional — will be appealed.
He also pointed out that Florida voters did not define “discharge of sentence” when they approved a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights.
In Iowa, the restoration is being defined in law “so voters will have the full context at the ballot box as opposed to after ratification.”
Kaufmann also referred to Iowa and U.S. Supreme Court case law, which he said has always treated victim restitution separately from fees and fines.
“This bill is narrow and focused on those pecuniary damages toward a person and therefore places this legislation on a much stronger legal footing compared to what occurred in Florida,” Kaufmann said.
The bill will be eligible for full House debate next week.
In February, the Judiciary Committee approved HF 2587 that would restore felon voting rights without a constitutional amendment. Although eligible for debate, it has not been called up.
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