2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Move to restore felon voting rights in Iowa collapses

Amid lack of support, senator upends governor's priority

Iowa NAACP President Betty Andrews joined Gov. Kim Reynolds Tuesday, March 12, 2019, to advocate for the restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentences. Reynolds announced she has streamlined the application process, trimming it from three pages to one. James Q. Lynch/The Gazette
Iowa NAACP President Betty Andrews joined Gov. Kim Reynolds Tuesday, March 12, 2019, to advocate for the restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentences. Reynolds announced she has streamlined the application process, trimming it from three pages to one. James Q. Lynch/The Gazette
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DES MOINES — A proposal to restore the voting rights of felons after they complete their sentences — a priority for Gov. Kim Reynolds — hit a roadblock Thursday and no longer will be considered this year by state lawmakers.

Pitched by the Republican governor in January during her Condition of the State address, the proposed constitutional amendment failed to meet a key deadline in the Iowa Legislature controlled by members of her own party.

“I am disappointed in today’s setback, but I will not give up the fight for Iowans who deserve a second chance,” Reynolds said in a statement shortly after the proposal’s legislative failure. “It’s encouraging to have a strong coalition of supporters backing our proposed constitutional amendment. There’s more work to do, but I am committed to getting this done.”

Iowa is one of just two states that require felons to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored after their sentences.

Reynolds, saying no one individual should wield such authority and that she believes in second chances, proposed amending the state’s constitution to grant automatic restoration of the rights once felons complete their sentences.

House Joint Resolution 14 last month passed the Iowa House on a decisive 95-2 vote. But Thursday it was removed from consideration in the Iowa Senate by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said there were not enough votes to pass it out of committee.

And because it did not advance through the committee, the proposal failed to meet a legislative “funnel” deadline and is no longer eligible for consideration for the rest of this session.

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“I didn’t have the support with my colleagues to move it through committee,” Zaun said.

Janet Petersen, the Senate Democratic leader from Des Moines and a Judiciary Committee member, said had the committee voted on the proposal, it would have had “substantial” backing from Democrats.

Saying he thinks the victims of felons’ crimes should also be considered, Zaun said he and other Senate Republicans were hesitant to approve a proposal to restore felons’ rights without a companion proposal to clarify what bench marks felons would be required to meet before having those rights restored.

Statehouse Republicans have said they want to have a debate over, among other questions, whether felons should first be required to pay all their fines and court fees, whether there should be a buffer period before those rights are restored and whether certain violent crimes should be excluded.

The debate over those questions did not materialize this year. One bill was introduced, but no action was taken.

Even after passing the proposal, some House Republicans said they voted for the bill only with the understanding that a final measure would require felons pay any court-ordered restitution to victims first.

Senate Republicans wanted such a restitution bill before they would support the proposed constitutional amendment, Zaun said.

“There were no conditions. That was the biggest problem with moving this bill,” Zaun said.

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An amendment to the Iowa Constitution must be approved by consecutive two-year General Assemblies, and then by a public vote.

Lawmakers could revisit it next year. But indications are it will not be easy for them to reach agreement on the restitution question.

Democrats are hesitant to attach requirements they see as too burdensome, Petersen said. For example, she suggested they would have difficulty supporting a requirement that felons have all fines and fees completely paid off.

And there is debate among Republican lawmakers about whether restitution language should be included as a separate proposal to change state law, or within a proposed constitutional amendment.

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