Staff Columnist

Reynolds should play hardball on felon voting rights

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during the Condition of the State address in the House Chamber at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during the Condition of the State address in the House Chamber at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

In seeking to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, Gov. Kim Reynolds appealed to Iowans who believe in redemption. Unfortunately, too few of them hold seats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That’s where a state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights was scrapped last week ahead of a legislative deadline. Republicans who run the committee couldn’t bear to move the amendment ahead on a long road to a statewide vote because they hadn’t yet decided how to mute its effect with tough-on-crime restrictions.

Reynolds was thinking about giving a compassionate second-chance to tens of thousands of Iowans. Senate Republicans were thinking about the next election. The governor was courageous. The Senate was callously calculating, even after the amendment cleared the House on a 95-2 vote.

Reynolds, like the manager of a runner-up ballclub, says she’ll wait until next year.

I wish she’d play hardball.

The governor’s game plan was solid. She used her highest profile moment, at the Condition of the State address, to call for the amendment. While lawmakers dithered, she shrank the current application for restoration of voting rights to a simpler, single page. Her staff, by all accounts, was actively engaged in a push for legislative action.

And yet, Iowa remains one of just two states, along with Kentucky, where felons must petition the governor for rights restoration. And in a state with woeful racial disparities in its criminal justice system, these disenfranchised Iowans are disproportionately black.

I wish Reynolds had handed senators an ultimatum. Pass the amendment, and I’ll work with you on separate legislation setting out limits. But if you scrap the amendment, I’ll issue an executive order restoring voting rights. And if you send me limiting legislation, I’ll veto it. We can work together on this, or I can go it alone, your choice, senators.

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That didn’t happen. And Reynolds continues to resist the idea of using her executive power to restore rights, as former Gov. Tom Vilsack did in 2005.

Governors must sometimes stand alone, and even buck their own party. It’s not always fun, but it has to happen. Legislators are worried about representing districts and pleasing party caucuses. Only the governor is a caucus of one, representing the entire state. That’s going to spawn conflict, and it should.

Former Gov. Terry Branstad, during his first stint as governor, bucked his party plenty, especially in dealing with a Democratic Legislature. Ditto with Vilsack in dealing with Republicans who ran the joint. Chet Culver angered a Democratic-run Legislature by vetoing a hastily passed expansion of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Sure, you can overplay your hand, as Branstad did in a clash with GOP leaders over school funding when Republicans controlled the Statehouse in 1998. And you can risk overreaching when going it alone, as Branstad did numerous times in his second stint,

But in the case of felon voting, Reynolds has clear executive authority. Polls show Iowans support her position. Oh, and it’s the right thing to do.

It’s the perfect moment to turn defeat into victory. Why wait until next year?

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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