Iowa Governor Proposes “Second Chance” for Voters with Felony Convictions

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Iowa’s Governor will propose a constitutional amendment ending the state’s policy of permanent disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions, citing the power of “second chances”. The Des Moines Register has more:

Gov. Kim Reynolds will propose a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to convicted felons in a Condition of the State address that highlights “the beauty of grace” and second chances.

“Talk with someone who, by their own actions, hit rock bottom but decided to turn their life around,” Reynolds will say Tuesday, according to her prepared remarks, portions of which were shared exclusively with the Des Moines Register. “Watch their face light up when they tell you about the person who offered them a helping hand. … There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose.”

Reynolds will give the annual Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa Legislature at 10 a.m. Tuesday. It’s her first such address after being elected in November, and it represents a fresh start for Reynolds as she seeks to define her own agenda separate from former Gov. Terry Branstad.

The felon voting proposal, if approved, would overturn a ban on felon voting Branstad enacted through executive order in 2011 and would further distance Reynolds from her predecessor and mentor. She told the Register that her first 17 months in office after taking over for Branstad in 2017 were “a balance” between carrying forward his agenda and establishing herself as Iowa’s chief executive.

The Governor cites her own personal experience as motivation for the effort to eliminate one of the nation’s harshest policies for formerly incarcerated voters:

“I’m a recipient of second chances,” Reynolds told reporters recently, referencing her past drunken driving arrests and her battle with alcohol addiction. “I believe that people make mistakes and there’s opportunities to change, and that needs to be recognized. So it’s something that I’m passionate about.”

Iowa has one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on felon voting, permanently barring them from voting unless they successfully petition the governor or president to restore their rights. Only Kentucky shares a similar lifetime ban after Floridians voted in November to lift their state’s ban.

“I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” Reynolds plans to say in her remarks Tuesday.

As of Dec. 7, Reynolds had restored the voting rights of 88 Iowa felons since she took office in May of 2017. Branstad restored the rights of 117 in the final 18 months of his administration, records show.

The proposal also follows recent reporting of issues with the policy – though some advocates want the Governor to supplement her proposed amendment with a more immediate executive order:

A Register investigation this week showed the system Iowa uses to prevent felons from voting has flaws, which have resulted in some Iowans wrongfully being denied their constitutional right to vote.

“Our founders gave us a process to amend the constitution, should the passage of time change our view,” Reynolds will say Tuesday. “Let’s begin that process now. I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption. Let’s put this issue in their hands.”

Lawmakers must approve legislation creating a constitutional amendment in two consecutive two-year general assemblies, and then Iowans must approve it in a statewide vote. If the measure is adopted, it could be reversed only through a second constitutional amendment.

Though advocates for criminal justice reform agree that a constitutional amendment is necessary and provides long-term protections from the whims of future Legislatures, they’ve also called on Reynolds to take immediate action through an executive order while the amendment moves through the years-long process.

Florida’s Amendment 4 – and the attention and emotion it generated – have put voting rights for people with felony convictions back in the spotlight. I will be curious whether the path to rights restoration, both in the Legislature and at the ballot box, is as clear in Iowa. If nothing else, kudos to Governor Reynolds for recognizing the power of a second chance and acknowledging the role the right to vote can play to someone seeking to re-establish themselves in society. Stay tuned …

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