Government

Iowa lawmakers see pushback on restoring felon voting rights

Reynolds may have to convince some legislators

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds believes Iowa is a place where “if you’ve made mistakes, you can find a second chance.”

That applies to felons, she said Tuesday in her Condition of the State speech, and asked legislators to begin the process of amending the state constitution that currently takes away the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony.

The governor has the authority to restore a felon’s voting rights, and Reynolds has done that 88 times since taking office in May 2017. However, she told lawmakers “I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person.”

Only Iowa and Kentucky have lifetime voting bans for felons. Florida voters overturned that state’s ban in November, and Reynolds’s press secretary Pat Garrett said there is momentum nationally and in Iowa to restore felon voting rights.

“She’s passionate about the issue” and including it in the Condition of the State speech indicated how important it is for the Osceola Republican, Garrett said.

Her predecessor, GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, ordered a ban on felon voting in 2011 when he returned to office after a 12-year absence. In the interval, Democratic Govs. Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver used executive orders to make it easier for felons to regain voting rights.

Reynolds could issue a similar order, and a number of Democrats have urged her to do so. But that could make her call for a constitutional amendment less urgent to lawmakers.

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Early reaction from key Republicans suggest she might have to apply pressure to lawmakers to get the amendment.

“My initial reaction is I’m resistant to changing the process in place,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said. He hasn’t discussed the proposal with his committee, “but I know there’s going to be some resistance.”

“That said,” he added, “I have indicated to the governor that I will keep an open mind.”

His counterpart in the House, Judiciary Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said it’s appropriate that it would be in the form of a constitutional amendment so the public could weigh in.

He and Zaun indicated their support might be contingent on the details.

“I think what is going to be looked at is the idea that once somebody has completely paid their debt to society, you know, through the prison sentence, probation, whatever the case may be, then the voting rights should be restored,” Holt said. “Once the completely repay their debts to society.”

Rep. Mary Wolfe of Clinton, a defense lawyer and ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, expects “whatever the case may be” to be critical to the discussion.

“I think there is a lot of general support for allowing felons who have completed their sentence to vote again,” said Wolfe, who applauded the governor for raising the issue.

But she’s concerned how the amendment will be worded. To her, the best approach would be to say felons are eligible to have voting rights restored when they have completed their sentence and no longer are under the supervision of the Corrections Department.

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Some lawmakers believe voting rights should not be available until restitution is completed. That would be problematic, Wolfe said.

“People who sometimes for no fault of their own are only making minimum wage … can’t ever pay their restitution, Wolfe said. “Why should they be denied the right to vote if they’ve done everything else?”

Allowing felons who have completed their sentences to vote allows them to be full members of their community, advocates say.

That’s what’s behind the proposal from Reynolds, who shared the story of a man who had his voting rights restored.

“He said, ‘I can’t even begin to tell you the dignity that I felt because I had gotten my life back, to be able to go in and vote,’ ” said Reynolds, who believes she got a second chance when she chose sobriety after her second drunken driving arrest 19 years ago.

A study by secondchances.org ahead of Floridians voting to restore felons’ voting rights found that it would help fold them back into the “fabric of Florida’s civic and economic life” and represent a boost of $365 million a year in lower prison costs and higher productivity.

“Denying Iowans the right to vote does nothing to keep our communities safer or make our democracy stronger,” ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer said. “In fact, it does the opposite. It prevents thousands of Iowans from successfully reintegrating into society and becoming active, invested participants in our communities and our state.”

In Iowa, felons must complete a survey and show payment of legal fees before voting privileges can be restored.

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More than 52,000 Iowans would gain voting right if the state changes how it handles the issue, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates for criminal justice reform.

In 36 states and the District of Columbia, felons’ voting privileges are restored automatically after completion of their sentence or their sentence plus parole and probation.

In 12 states, including Iowa, voting privileges can be restored if a felon completes a petition process. In two states, felons never lose their voting privileges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Wolfe hopes the issue doesn’t become partisan. Polls, she said, have shown about 70 percent of Iowans support voting rights restoration.

“I’ve been contacted over the summer by several Republican legislators, and then, after the election, by a few of the newly elected legislators who, who were like, ‘Yeah, that’s something we want to work on,’” Wolfe said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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