Government

Rough road ahead for Iowa felons voting rights proposal

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Despite a push from the governor, including a plea in her annual Condition of the State address, a proposal to make it easier for felons to have their Iowa voting rights restored upon completion of their sentence has faced an uphill climb at the Iowa Capitol.

Some state lawmakers have been hesitant to support the governor’s proposal, and at least one key legislative leader wants to add stipulations that would actually make the process harder.

“I have communicated to the governor and the governor’s staff that it’s going to be an uphill climb in the Senate Judiciary Committee, as there wasn’t a lot of support for reinstating felons’ voting rights,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale who chairs the committee. “I do believe that people should get a second chance. With that said, I don’t think it should be an easy, streamlined process (or) just an automatic reinstatement of their voting rights.”

Iowa is one of just two states that requires felons who complete their sentence to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. The other is Kentucky.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has called for amending the Iowa Constitution to automatically restore felons’ voting rights once they have finished their sentence. Reynolds said she wants to remove the governor’s role — it is her belief that one person should not wield such authority.

Reynolds’ Republican colleagues in the Iowa Legislature have not fully embraced the proposal. They want any measure that restores felons’ voting rights to come with stipulations. Some of the proposed stipulations have included a requirement that felons completely pay off all fines and fees to the courts and the victims, exclusion from eligibility for certain crimes, and that there be a buffer period of multiple years before voting rights are restored.

A requirement of full payment to the courts and victims would actually make the process harder than current law, which requires only that felons show they are making an effort to fulfill those obligations.

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That means if legislative Republicans include those requirements for restitution, it would essentially defeat the purpose of Reynolds’ proposed constitutional amendment, even if it passes.

“I can tell you that in my conversations with my judiciary (committee) members, there was very little support to reinstate felons’ voting rights in that committee,” Zaun said. “The concerns were if we would even consider it, there had to be a probation period, 100 percent restitution paid to the victim as well as our court system.”

The proposal is alive, legislatively speaking, only after it was called up just this week, two months into the legislative session and only just before a key deadline.

With only the constitutional amendment language — nothing yet included regarding restitution — the proposal unanimously passed the House’s judiciary committee.

But Sen. Steve Holt, a Republican from Denison who chairs that committee, said the restitution language will be amended to the proposal at some point in the future.

Reynolds celebrated the victory of the first step.

“(The) unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee sends a strong message in favor of second chances and forgiveness for felons,” Reynolds said in a statement. “It highlights the broad commitment of supporters for a constitutional amendment and another step forward to give Iowans a vote on this issue.”

The next steps will be tenuous, and many unanswered questions remain.

Are there enough Republicans, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, to support the proposal to advance it?

How strict must the restitution process be to convince enough Republicans to sign on?

Will statehouse Republican leaders call up the bill for a vote if all Democrats support it and only some Republicans? Or will they only call up the bill for a vote once there is enough support from Republicans alone, which would require 26 of the 32 in the Senate and 51 of the 54 in the House?

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Would Reynolds sign a bill that proposes the constitutional amendment but adds restitution requirements that surpass the current process?

Legislative leaders have not answered those questions, leaving the proposal’s future clouded.

“Some believe in full restoration. Some believe that if there is a good-faith payment plan set up that could be a compromise. And there are some who believe in the bill as is,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton who said he expects a full debate among the 54 House Republicans.

No advocacy organization is registered in opposition to the proposal, according to legislative records, while 19 are registered in support. The groups supporting the proposal represent a wide array of constituents — they include faith-based groups like The Family Leader and Iowa Catholic Conference, taxpayer watchdog groups like Americans for Prosperity, legal groups like the Iowa Association for Justice and the state Attorney General’s Office, environmental groups and organizations that advocate on behalf of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

Zaun said his trepidation is partly in deference to the victims of the crimes the felons committed.

“I’m not going to stand in (the proposal’s) way personally, although I have strong feelings on this issue and concerns about the victims. Because I don’t think the victim’s voice is being heard through this whole, negotiated process,” Zaun said.

And that process — amending Iowa’s constitution — is far from simple. A proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by consecutive two-year General Assemblies and then by a public vote.

So even if Reynolds’ proposal — House Study Bill 68 — passes this year, it also must be introduced and passed again in 2021 at the earliest. If it passes a second time, it would then be put to Iowa voters.

“The thing that I think gets lost on people is that this is just authorizing the people to vote on it,” Kaufmann said. “The people deserve that opportunity.”

As the process has shown thus far, there is no guarantee they will get that chance.

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