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Iowa House panel approves restoration of felon voting rights

The Senate chambers are seen from the galley area at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The G
The Senate chambers are seen from the galley area at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Without debate, a Republican-controlled House committee unanimously voted Thursday to restore felon voting rights before the 2020 election.

The move could jump-start the discussion about a constitutional amendment restoring the rights of Iowans convicted of felonies. Iowa is the only state that still outright bans former felons from voting without prior approval from the governor.

“This is a new pathway forward” for restoring voting rights, said the committee chairman, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

Although Gov. Kim Reynolds has called on the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights on the ballot, lawmakers have yet to take those steps.

In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation earlier in the week that, if a constitutional amendment is approved, would require felons to complete their sentences, including parole and probation, and pay in full any court-ordered payments to victims.

An amendment offered by Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, to House Study Bill 545 essentially would codify former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack’s 2005 executive order restoring voting rights. It was overturned by former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.

“We’re here to expand democracy,” Hunter told the committee before his amendment was accepted on a voice vote.

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HSB 545 is a sweeping elections bill that address election cybersecurity, wages for poll workers, ballot safety and “strongly ensconces voter ID,” according to the bill’s manager, Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs.

Hunter’s amendment would not remove the need for a constitutional amendment, he said. If the Legislature approves legislation this year and again in the next two-year General Assembly, the amendment would go to the voters.

“But it would be 2024 before felons would get to vote,” Hunter said. By codifying the executive order, legislators would speed up the process.

Reynolds has been encouraged to restore voting rights with an executive order. She has been firm that the constitutional amendment is a better way to address the issue.

HSB 545 “gives the conversation a fresh avenue for restoring voting rights,” Kaufmann said.

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

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