Iowa finds itself in sparse company on a key voting rights issue. Along with Kentucky, we are the only states that permanently disenfranchise people convicted of felonies.
This year in Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to most felons. The referendum passed with 65 percent of the vote, on the same day voters elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate and the governorship. That shows this is not a Democratic issue.
Former Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order in 2005 to automatically restore felons’ voting rights, and former Gov. Terry Branstad reversed it in 2011. That reversal created confusion, leading to some felons unwittingly breaking the law.
Gov. Kim Reynolds now has the opportunity to undo her predecessor’s misguided decision and restore voting rights. She told reporters last week she’s “going to take a look at it,” but wants to consult with lawmakers first.
Instead, Reynolds should act now by executive order, and also work with the Legislature to hatch a lasting solution. Leaving this issue up to the Legislature alone leaves the possibility of an unsatisfactory half-measure. Lawmakers might restore rights only to certain segments of the felon population, or impose additional barriers for those seeking their rights. We strongly favor restoring voting rights automatically and without exception to those who have completed their sentences.
Currently, felons can earn back their voting rights by appealing directly to the governor, and Reynolds has granted 88 requests and denied none in her first 18 months in office. However, the process for recovering your voting rights is unnecessarily arduous and invasive.
The so-called “streamlined” application from the governor’s office calls for a long list of facts and figures relating to an individual’s legal history, information that even a lawyer might have trouble pulling together in a reasonable span of time. Applicants also must sign a release to “authorize any and all persons, firms or corporations, to release any and all information or documents they may now have or hereinafter receive concerning me” to the governor.
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Are those who have completed their sentences truly free if they can’t vote? Is Reynolds sincere when she promotes the value of second chances?
A common comment about Reynolds’ tenure as governor is that she has failed to establish herself independent of Branstad, whose governorship she inherited last year. This is her chance to make her own mark.
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