Iowa Governor Signs Executive Order on Felon Voting Rights

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Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds finally followed through on a promise made back in June and issued an executive order restoring voting rights to thousands of individuals with felony convictions. The Des Moines Register has more:

Thousands of Iowans with felony convictions who have served their sentences can now participate in November’s presidential election after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order Wednesday restoring their voting rights.

Reynolds, a Republican, signed the executive order Wednesday morning in her office at the Iowa Capitol, flanked by a group of local leaders and legislators.

“Quite simply, when someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crimes, they should have their right to vote restored, automatically, plain and simple,” she said.

Iowa was the last state in the nation that still banned all people with felony convictions from voting — even after the completion of their sentences — unless they applied individually to the governor’s office to have their rights restored.

The order comes nearly two months after the Governor initially said she’d issue one after calls to address Iowa’s shifting position on felon voting rights intensified during protests over the death of George Floyd:

Reynolds has spent the past two years advocating for the Iowa Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights but had resisted calls to sign an executive order, saying she believes a constitutional amendment is the best solution because it can’t be changed by a future governor.

This summer, after Republicans in the Iowa Senate did not pass the amendment and after George Floyd’s death prompted increased advocacy on racial justice issues, she announced she would sign the order.

Iowa’s felon voting ban was estimated to affect tens of thousands of people. The Iowa Department of Corrections has discharged an average of 5,000 people with felony convictions annually in recent years, according to Sam Langholz, the governor’s legal counsel. A 2016 report from The Sentencing Project found that the ban affected nearly one in 10 African-American adults.

Restoring the right to vote for Iowans with felony records has been a priority for advocacy groups such as the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa for years. The issue received heightened attention this summer as protests for racial justice swept across the country after the death of Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, in the custody of a white police officer. Activists with Des Moines Black Lives Matter made the voting rights issue one of their top demands for the governor.

The order does come with some limitations; it excludes those convicted of certain violent crimes and also blocks re-registration by people on probation or parole:

Reynolds’ order states that felons must have discharged their sentence, including any parole and probation, before their voting rights will be restored. Anyone still serving a prison sentence for a felony conviction will not be able to vote.

The order does not automatically grant voting rights to people convicted of felonies outlined in Iowa Code chapter 707, which includes murder and manslaughter. People convicted of serious sexual abuse crimes will need to complete any special sentences before their voting rights are restored. Those special sentences last either 10 years or for life, depending on the crime, meaning people convicted of the most serious sexual crimes will never automatically regain their voting rights.

Those whose voting rights are not automatically restored under the order can still petition the governor individually to have them restored.

Unlike the new Florida law currently under challenge in the courts, Iowa will not require payment of restitution as a condition of restoring voting rights:

The executive order does not require people with felony convictions to fully pay back any restitution payments owed to their victims before regaining their rights, as was included in a bill introduced by Republicans in the Iowa Senate earlier this year. But the order does not relieve them from making their payments.

Nearly one in four Iowa felony convictions in the last two years came with a judgment ordering restitution to be paid to victims. The average tab for those nearly 4,000 convictions is $11,607.

The wait for the order has created come concerns about implementation before the November 2020 election:

Voting rights advocates have pointed to the closing window of time leading up to the Nov. 3 election, which is now less than three months away. They say they need as much time as possible to educate Iowans with felony convictions on whether they are now eligible to vote and to get them registered, which involves making sure they have identification and proof of residency.

“We got it done, I feel like, in a timely manner,” Reynolds said. “Individuals will have ample time to get registered and to participate in the process in Iowa. We’re one of the states where you can register the same day that you can vote.”

Andrews said the NAACP will be working to educate people about the order and get them registered to vote ahead of the election.

“Now, our work is to make sure that people are registered,” she said. “As of today, they are allowed to vote.”

For its part, the state will work with counties to ensure that now-eligible individuals will be properly marked in official databases:

Election officials will also need to update their list of who is eligible to vote. The Iowa Secretary of State’s office maintains a database of people with felony convictions that in the past has erroneously listed people as ineligible to vote.

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said July 28 that the office was “prepared to pivot its felon initiative” to assist in implementing the executive order once it was signed by the governor.

Reynolds also pledged again to seek a permanent solution through a legislatively-enacted constitutional amendment, which has so far eluded her:

In her remarks, Reynolds again emphasized her commitment to eventually restoring voting rights through a constitutional amendment.

“Let me be clear, an executive order is at best a temporary solution,” she said. “It can be changed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor, which is not good enough. Something that is fundamentally right should not be based on the benevolence of a single elected official.”

For the past two years, the governor has called for amending the Iowa Constitution to automatically restore voting rights to felons once they have completed their sentences. Each year, the measure failed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Reynolds has said she will try again.

“We’re going to continue to negotiate and look for a permanent solution, and we’ll see where those conversations go,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of legislators reach out. They’re very interested in continuing that conversation. So I’m very optimistic about that.”

Iowa’s rules for felon voting have seesawed in the past. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, signed an executive order restoring voting rights for felons in 2005, but Reynolds’ predecessor, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, rescinded it shortly after taking office in 2011.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, criticized Senate Republicans for an “absence of leadership” on passing an amendment.

“This is a temporary solution,” Petersen said in a statement. “A permanent solution was blocked by Senate Republicans, who failed to amend the Iowa Constitution to allow more Iowans to vote.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, praised Reynolds for signing the executive order.

“The House took action on the constitutional amendment in 2019, and I look forward to continue working with the Governor and Senate to find resolution next session,” Grassley said in a statement.

This is a significant move for Iowa and the nation, as it (once again) removes the Hawkeye State’s distinction as the only one nationwide to permanently revoke voting rights from individuals with felony convictions. The race is now on to implement the new policy before November – even as discussions begin on making the change permanent in the next legislative session. Stay tuned …

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