2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Nearly unanimous Iowa House endorses felon voting rights

Question of restoring rights now faces skeptical senators

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa House Democrats and Republicans on Thursday set in motion a referendum that would restore felon voting rights, coming just shy of unanimous approval of the historic measure.

The House voted 95-2 to approve House Joint Resolution 14 calling for a state constitutional amendment making it possible for Iowa felons to have their voting rights restored.

The strong bipartisan vote for one of the priorities she identified in her Jan. 15 Condition of the State address “is a victory for Iowans who deserve a second chance, Gov. Kim Reynolds said.

The measure has a long way to go — including facing a skeptical Senate and an eventual public vote — before it becomes law. As it is now, the decision whether to restore voting rights to Iowa felons after they complete their sentences is made by the governor after receiving a recommendation from the parole board.

Under the proposal, felon voting rights restoration would not be automatic. And the brief discussion Thursday on HJR 14 made clear that the larger debate will be on just which felons will have their voting rights re-established and what they will have to do to regain the right to vote and hold elective office.

“While I do support this wholeheartedly today, I want to make it clear … I do not believe that rapists, child molesters or murderers should ever have those rights back,” said State Government Committee Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

Adopting exclusions and a process for felon voting rights restoration would put Iowa in the company of most states, said Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, one of the “no” votes on the resolution.

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He agrees with Reynolds’ goal to give offenders a second chance, but believes the terms of the restoration process must be spelled out in the amendment to prevent future Legislatures from “amending the constitution through statute.”

That’s a debate for another day, probably next year, but definitely before the 2020 election, House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale, said.

With a “broad coalition of supporters behind this constitutional amendment,” Reynolds said she will work with the Senate “to move the process forward, allowing Iowans a vote on this important issue.”

It appears that will be an uphill climb.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said Thursday he told Reynolds he won’t stand in the way of her proposal. However, when he discussed the issue with GOP committee members in January “there was really no interest in moving this. It was not even close.”

His committee members had “strong feelings in regards to the victims and the victims’ rights.”

“So we’ll caucus on it and if there is support, we’ll run it through committee. If not, it will not be run through committee,” he said.

House members urged the Senate to follow their lead and send the proposed constitutional amendment to voters.

“If you believe in the concept of redemption and that people can change and can come back into and be a functioning member and a contributing member of society, this is that bill that allows people that chance,” House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said.

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Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, who said Democrats are a “heck yes” on the resolution, reminded senators it’s clear Iowans want an opportunity to vote on the amendment.

“I say to the Senate, put your ‘yes’ vote where your mouth is,” Wolfe said.

Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, recalled working with Republicans in 2005 to find a way to restore felon voting rights.

“The climate has changed,” she said. The only way to address the issue then was through Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack’s executive order to restore the rights.

“I appreciate we are on the right track,” Lensing said.

Before the proposed amendment goes to voters, it must be approved by two consecutive General Assemblies. The earliest it could be on the ballot will be 2022, legislators said.

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

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