DES MOINES — Iowa Senate Democrats called Wednesday for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to quickly sign an executive order allowing felons to vote once they have completed their sentences, while voting right experts said the details of her directive are just as important as the timing of her action.
Reynolds has made a state constitutional amendment restoring felon voter rights a top priority for two years, but her Senate Republican colleagues have rejected her proposals. Against a backdrop of protests over racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Reynolds this month promised to sign an executive order that would end Iowa’s status as the only state that disenfranchises all felons. But she has not provided specifics about what the order would say or when she’d sign it — except before the November election.
The 18 Democratic senators asked Reynolds in a letter to sign an order without exceptions or limitations by Independence Day. The order, Democrats said, should simply update one issued by then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack on July 4, 2005, that allowed tens of thousands of felons to vote. Reynolds’ predecessor, former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, reversed the order six years later, requiring inmates to individually seek the governor’s approval.
“It is disgraceful that the only way for felons in Iowa to get their voting rights reinstated is to petition the governor to restore their rights,” the letter states.
The Senate Democrats said action by July 4 would give people affected by the order plenty of time before the November election to register, get needed identification, find polling places and request absentee ballots if necessary.
A spokesman for the governor didn’t respond to a request to comment on the Democrats’ letter.
Experts on voting rights and racial disparities said the way Reynolds frames the order will significantly impact the number of felons who will register and vote.
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“Iowa is the last state in the country with a policy of permanently disenfranchising everyone with past convictions and it would be a major step forward for the country to leave that unjust and undemocratic policy in the dustbin of history,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a lawyer focusing on voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
She said participation by felons will depend on whether Reynolds’ order excludes some crimes, requires payment of restitution and is signed early enough for potential voters to prepare for the Nov. 3 election.
Requiring payment of restitution or court fines and fees reduces participation because as many as half of released felons have some financial obligation, said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
A research paper he published in 2015 based on Iowa data indicated that former felony inmates will participate in larger numbers when informed by a government official that they have their rights restored.
“Details will be important,” Meredith said. “Clarifying that confusion and making sure that people who are eligible to vote understand that will affect how many people will actually use those voting rights.”
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