Gov. Reynolds proposes constitutional amendment to eliminate voting restrictions for ex-convicts

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Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the 2019 Condition of the State address, Jan. 12, 2019. — Office of the Governor of Iowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address on Tuesday that she’s ready to take action to advance her priorities. Reynolds told the assembled legislators, “the future I see isn’t around the corner, or after the next election. The future is now.”

Except, it seems, for the one policy area where Reynolds is most clearly separating herself from her predecessor Gov. Terry Branstad: restoring the voting rights of people convicted of felonies.

For that, Reynolds proposed waiting for, at least, two elections, perhaps three.

Reynolds said she wants to amend the Iowa Constitution to remove its voting restrictions on anyone convicted of felony. Currently, only Iowa and Kentucky automatically disenfranchise felons. The only way ex-convicts can regain the right to vote is if the governor personally approves their applications, after a process that critics describe as overly long and complicated.

“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 told legislators, who responded to the proposal with a standing ovation.

To change the constitution, the same amendment must be passed by two successive sessions of the legislature (this one and the one that convenes in January 2021), and then be submitted to voters for approval in the next general election. Depending on when the amendment passes the next legislative session, it would go to voters in either 2021 or 2022.

But Reynolds could immediately end felon disenfranchisement with an executive order, if she wanted to. In 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack issued such an executive order and voting rights were automatically restored to felons at the end of their sentences. Branstad eliminated that with an executive order when he took office in 2011.

In her speech, Reynolds said she wanted the legislature to pair the amendment to restore felon voting rights with an amendment on victims’ rights. Iowa law already guarantees the same rights for victims that other states do — the right to a victim advocate and the right to make an impact statement, as well as the rights to restitution, compensation and to be notified of developments in their case. The governor did not explain why an amendment was necessary beyond saying it would “send victims a loud and clear message: We will protect you.”

Other proposals in the governor’s speech, which ranged from increasing availability to mental health care to improving rural broadband internet service, were continuations or extensions of existing programs.

This was Reynolds’ second Condition of the State address, but the first since she was elected as governor. She delivered her address last year after taking over as governor when Branstad stepped down in 2017 to become ambassador to China.

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