As promised back in June, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order this week automatically restoring voting rights to thousands of felons who have completed their sentences in prison and on parole and probation. Iowa was the last state to require felons to individually petition the governor to gain their rights, a policy that disenfranchised tens of thousands of Iowans, including a disproportionate number of Black Iowans.
It’s good news after a long wait. Civil rights and civil liberties groups have been lobbying for felon voting rights restoration since 2011 when Reynolds’ Republican predecessor, Gov. Terry Branstad, rescinded a 2005 executive order automatically restoring voting rights.
To her credit, in 2019, Reynolds used her high-profile Condition of the State speech to call for a constitutional amendment restoring felon voting rights. It was part of Reynolds’ “second chance agenda” intended to help former offenders find a place in society.
But her amendment didn’t stand a chance in the GOP Legislature, particularly in the Iowa Senate, where it failed for two years to gain passage. Senators insisted voting rights be restored only to certain offenders and only after they fully paid restitution, a move that would have left low-income offenders off the voter rolls. Critics said it would amount to a poll tax.
Despite being unable to push lawmakers to act, Reynolds resisted restoring rights through an executive order. But that changed after thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets and the Statehouse grounds in aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The felon voting issue was transformed from one among many Statehouse issues to a symbol of the systemic racism that permeates our criminal justice system.
Black Lives Matter advocates who met with Reynolds and who chanted “Let them vote” in Capitol hallways pushed felon voting over the finish line. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for young organizers and activists who wouldn’t give up. In the words of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, they made “good trouble.”
Reynolds’ order does not require full payment of restitution, but it does restrict which felons receive automatic restoration. People convicted of the most serious sex crimes would not have their rights automatically restored. Nor would offenders convicted of crimes under Iowa Code chapter 707, including murder, attempted murder, homicide by vehicle and other crimes related to homicide.
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Now, less than two months before early balloting begins in Iowa, tens of thousands of Iowans will become eligible to take part in the 2020 election. We urge the secretary of state, county auditors and organizations who lobbied for voting rights to do all they can to make sure these new voters navigate the registration process and cast a ballot.
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