Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed this week she intends to sign an executive order restoring voting rights to Iowans convicted of felonies. Iowa is the only state that slaps felons with a lifetime ban on voting unless they individually petition the governor to have their rights restored.
It’s a welcome and long overdue development. Reynolds has spent the better part of two years trying to convince the Legislature to move ahead with a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights. Even as her fellow Republicans in the Iowa Senate repeatedly balked at the idea, she has resisted calls from many, including this editorial board, to use her executive authority to restore voting rights.
But Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd have shined a powerful spotlight on unjust policies permeating our justice system. Iowa’s shameful felon voting ban leaves tens of thousands of people unable to cast a ballot, disproportionately disenfranchising Iowans of color. Protesters’ chants of “Let them vote” have echoed through the Statehouse. And meetings between activists, black community leaders and Reynolds in recent days appear to have turned the tide toward executive action.
But big questions about Reynolds’ order remain.
We don’t know what Reynolds’ order will contain. There are indications it will be different from executive action taken by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who ordered automatic restoration for all felons who completed their prison sentences. Reynolds says she is meeting with various groups as she crafts her own order.
While trying to convince lawmakers to approve an amendment, Reynolds agreed to back legislation limiting which felons would have their rights restored and requiring offenders to pay all victim restitution before being allowed the vote. That’s a more stringent standard than felons face under current rules, which require they prove progress is being made on restitution payments.
Requiring such a hurdle would amount to an unconstitutional poll tax on low-income offenders. It would be a massive mistake to include such a provision in the executive order.
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The governor also hasn’t said when she plans to issue an order, saying only that it will be before the November election. We urge the governor to act quickly. Every day of delay raises the possibility of confusion for voters and election officials, especially if the governor’s order is filled with caveats, new requirements and exemptions.
The best way to avoid that confusion is to swiftly issue a clean, straightforward executive order automatically restoring voting rights to offenders who have completed their sentences. Set aside political calculations. Toss the poll tax back on the scrap heap of history.
Instead, listen to the protesters demanding justice. Simply let them vote.
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