Staff Columnist

One issue, two Iowa governors, 15 years apart

The Iowa Capitol is seen in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Iowa Capitol is seen in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

While we’re waiting, and waiting, for Kim, some are looking back longingly to Tom.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she will sign an executive order restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. But we don’t know when, maybe “late summer,” she says. And we don’t know what the order will entail.

Fifteen years ago this month former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack announced he would sign an executive order on Independence Day automatically restoring voting rights to felons who completed their sentences, including parole and probation.

“We’re here today talking about the State of Iowa joining the vast majority of states that understand a simple fact: when you pay your debt to society, you need to be reconnected and re-engaged in society,’’ Vilsack told us that day at a briefing I covered and wrote about.

At stake then and now are the voting rights of tens of thousands of Iowans, with a disproportionate share being Iowans of color. Back in 2005, six states banned felons from voting for life unless they petitioned individually to have their rights restored. Now, Iowa is the only state.

Different governors from different parties in different eras. But there are similarities.

For one thing, national factors have shaped both moments.

In 2005, Vilsack’s political stock was rising nationally. He had been on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s shortlist of running mates in 2004 and was tapped to head the then-influential Democratic Leadership Council in early 2005. The centrist DLC helped Bill Clinton win the White House.

At the 2004 Democratic convention, Vilsack apologized to the party’s Latino Caucus for signing a bill in 2002 making English Iowa’s official language. The measure championed by then-state Sen. Steve King, was widely viewed as anti-immigrant.

For Vilsack, seen as a possible presidential contender in 2008, restoring voting rights would further burnish his civil rights record. He announced his intentions surrounded by Iowa civil rights and civil liberties leaders at the Capitol.

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Reynolds announced in her 2019 Condition of the State that she would push for a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights as part of her “second chances” agenda aimed at helping released offenders rejoin communities and the economy.

Reynolds argued that an amendment would be a more permanent solution than an executive order. Vilsack’s order was swiftly rescinded when Terry Branstad returned to office in 2011 with Reynolds as his lieutenant governor. During Branstad’s first four terms, new prisons became economic development projects.

Reynolds resisted demands that she immediately restore voting rights through her own executive order, even as legislative resistance blocked the amendment. In the meantime, Reynolds did take action to streamline the existing system, making it easier for felons to request rights restoration.

Then came the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation demanding an end to systemic racism plaguing our justice system. Ending the felon ban became a core demand of activists here in Iowa. Protests in Des Moines reached the Statehouse steps and chants of “Let them vote” echoed in its hallways.

After meeting with young protest organizers, state lawmakers and community leaders, Reynolds announced she would sign an executive order aimed at restoring voting rights.

“We’re working on that right now, sitting down with various groups, listening to what they think is important what is contained in that executive order,” Reynolds told reporters at an appearance in Osage on June 16, according to Radio Iowa, “and then I’ve got my legal team working on it.”

Vilsack’s order restored voting rights to offenders who finished their sentences, including parole and probation, but did not require full payment of fines or restitution. The governor retained the power to deny rights in special circumstances. It survived a court challenge. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates Vilsack’s order restored voting rights to 115,000 Iowans.

Reynolds’ order may be more restrictive. While still lobbying for an amendment, Reynolds signed a GOP bill that would limit its impact by denying restoration to certain categories of violent felonies and sex crimes while also requiring full payment of fines and restitution.

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Iowa’s current system doesn’t require full payment. For low-income offenders, the change would amount to a poll tax barring them from voting because of their inability to pay. I’ve seen no evidence presented by lawmakers or Reynolds showing how withholding voting rights results in faster payment of debts.

Both governors showed some political courage.

Vilsack issued his order during a tough-on-crime era at the Statehouse, when no penalty for meth dealing or other headline-grabbing crimes could be tough enough. Moderate Democrats joined in on the crackdown. In the two years before issuing his order, according to a Des Moines Register analysis at the time, Vilsack’s office rejected dozens of voting rights applications for failure to pay debts.

But in the end, he did the right thing.

Reynolds took a high-profile stand for second chances and voting rights, even as her Trumpian “law and order” party endorses voter suppression across the nation, especially of minority voters. Sure, she should have issued an order far sooner, but she deserves credit for listening to and responding to calls for justice from Black Lives Matter at this moment. Her party may not give her that credit.

“I’m not sure who advised her that meeting with the group once was a good idea. I’m not sure that whoever advised her meeting with them a second time should still have a job in government — at any level. And whoever advised her that this executive order is the right road to go down should probably not be allowed a seat at any serious table for Republican discussion ever again,” wrote commentator Jacob Hall at the conservative website The Iowa Standard this past week.

But Reynolds is a popular governor with enough political capital to ignore her GOP critics push aside the objections of lawmakers. This is about far more than the next election. She should sign a clean executive order without an unnecessary poll tax, and do it sooner than later. I hope, in the end, Reynolds does the right thing, something worth remembering.

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

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