Gov. Reynolds says she will issue executive order restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies

Video still of Gov. Reynolds speaking on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol, June 1, 2020.

Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed on Tuesday she has committed to signing an executive order restoring voting rights. Details about the order are not yet finalized, Reynolds said while visiting a Test Iowa site in Osage.

“We’re working on that right now, sitting down with various groups, listening to what they think is important what is contained in that executive order,” the governor told Bob Fisher of KGLO News. “And then I’ve got my legal team working on it.”

Iowa is the only state that permanently bars people convicted of a felony from voting. Currently, 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. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, issued such an executive order and voting rights were automatically restored to felons at the end of their sentences. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad overturned that with an executive order when he took office in 2011.

Reynolds has resisted previous calls to issue an executive order restoring voting rights, insisting she would prefer to do so through a constitutional amendment. The governor has listed that amendment as a top priority in her Condition of the State speeches at the beginning of both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. Both times, a version of the constitutional amendment was passed by the Iowa House of Representatives, but the Republican leaders of the state Senate did not hold a vote on the proposed amendment during either session.

For an amendment to be added to the Iowa Constitution, it must be approved by both chambers of the legislature during two consecutive sessions of the legislature. It is then put on the next general election ballot, and must be approved by a majority of voters.

The Senate’s actions mean that 2022 is the earliest the amendment could be put to the voters.

The protests following the killing of George Floyd put new energy behind to push to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies. Des Moines Black Lives Matter, which has led protests in the city and worked with legislators on the police reform bill that the legislature passed in just over two hours on June 11, has made an executive order on restoration a priority. Leaders from the group have met with governor twice about it.

“We’ve got people who are new to the process and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but just not familiar with who can do what, how it is implemented, how important it is to get it done right,” Reynolds said on Tuesday.

On Monday Reynolds met with leaders from Des Moines Black Lives Matters, as well as Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and representatives of the NAACP of Iowa-Nebraska and the ACLU of Iowa about the executive order. After the meeting, all the participants said the governor had committed to issuing the executive order before the general election in November, except Reynolds herself. The governor’s office did not respond to questions from reporters about the meeting.

Reynolds said on Tuesday that her executive order may be different from Vilsack’s but did not specify how.

“Just some things we might be able to address because we know more now, and so just looking at holistically what that looks like,” she said.

Reynolds signed a bill on June 4 that would place restrictions on who qualifies for automatic restitution of voting rights, if a constitutional amendment is passed. People convicted of murder, sexual offenses, child endangerment that resulted in death and election misconduct would be ineligible. The bill also requires people convicted of felonies who are sentenced to pay victim restitution to finish paying restitution before becoming eligible.

According to an analysis by the Des Moines Register, almost 25 percent of all felony convictions in Iowa during the last two years require victim restitution. The average amount owed in restitution is $11,607.

A poster hung at First Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids in the offices of RISE (Reintegration Initiative for Safety and Empowerment) Project, March 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

“If we tie the restoration of voting rights — quite possibly our most valuable constitutional right as citizens — to the ability to pay a debt, we are creating a poll tax. You may not want to call it that but it’s a poll tax nonetheless,” Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, said during the debate on the bill. “Quite frankly, given everything happening in our state and country right now, it is astounding to me that the majority party would choose to move a bill that is so tone deaf to this moment.”

The bill passed both chambers on party-line votes, with support coming from Republicans.

Reynolds acknowledged the importance of the November election in her remarks on Tuesday, but did not explicitly commit to having a restoration process in place in time for the election.

The governor also said amending the Iowa Constitution to restore the voting rights of people convicted of felonies remains a priority.

“I still am not going to give up on a permanent solution,” Reynolds said. “I just believe that’s the right thing to do and then it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the governor’s chair.”

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