Iowa is no longer the only state to disenfranchise all people convicted of felonies

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the executive order reversing felony disenfranchisement in most cases on Aug. 5, 2020. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order that automatically restores the voting rights of almost all Iowans convicted of a felony, as well as their right to hold public office. The bill excludes people convicted of murder and manslaughter, although they can still individually apply to the governor for the restoration of their rights.

“Iowa holds the unfortunate status as the only state in the country that prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from voting or holding public office for life, unless they petition the governor to restore those rights,” the governor said before signing the executive order. “That creates the potential for uneven justice. It means people who have served their sentence and are seeking to get their lives back on track permanently are prohibited from one of the most basic rights of citizenship unless a single individual decides otherwise.”

In 2005, Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, issued an executive order automatically voting rights to people who completed their sentences for felonies. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad overturned that with an executive order when he took office in 2011.

Since becoming governor after Branstad was appointed ambassador to China by President Trump, Reynolds has said that amending the Iowa Constitution to restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony, but has so far been unable to persuade the Republican majority in the Iowa Senate to support such a change.

“We know that even before you became governor, you listened to us during out meetings with Gov. Branstad,” Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said to the governor at the signing ceremony.

The NAACP, along with other groups, had been working on the issue ever since Branstad revoked Vilsack’s executive order, Andrews noted. The push to restore voting rights gained new momentum with the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

Des Moines Black Lives Matter, which led the protest in that city, made restoring voting rights through an executive order one of their top priorities.

During a meeting on June 15 with leaders from Des Moines Black Lives Matter, as well as Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and representatives of the NAACP of Iowa-Nebraska and the ACLU of Iowa, Reynolds committed to issuing the order.

“As we work to address issues of racial disparities, we cannot ignore how negatively and significantly the current process has impacted the lives of so many Iowans of color,” the governor said about automatic disenfranchisement on Wednesday.

Reynolds said the executive order aligned with work being done by the Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. She said the committee’s work had been slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, but was confident that progress could still be made on such issues as racial profiling.

Reynolds stressed she still wants to amend the constitution, because an executive order “can be changed with a stroke of a pen by the next governor.”

“I’m hoping that that same passion with which people have called for this executive order will now be directed at getting the constitutional amendment passed,” Reynolds said near the end of the signing ceremony.

The governor has included a constitutional amendment as one of her top legislative priorities in her Condition of State speeches in 2019 and 2020. Both years, the Iowa House of Representatives passed the amendment, but the Iowa Senate did not bring it up for a vote.

To be added to the Iowa Constitution, an amendment must be passed by the Iowa Legislature during two consecutive sessions and then approved by voters in a general election.

Any amendment restoring voting rights would apply to fewer people than the executive order issued on Wednesday.

On June 4, Reynolds signed into law a bill that placed restrictions on who qualifies for the automatic restitution of voting rights, if a constitutional amendment is passed. Not only would people convicted of murder be excluded, but people convicted of sexual offenses, child endangerment that resulted in death and election misconduct would also be ineligible. In addition, that new law 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.

The executive order does not require people to finish paying victim restitution before having their rights restored.

A 2016 report by The Sentencing Project estimated Iowa’s policy regarding people convicted of felonies had disenfranchised approximately 2.2 percent of the state’s voting age population. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system made the impact on Black Iowans much more severe, with 9.8 percent of Black adults being disenfranchised.

“We understand there’s a lot more to do, but certainly this is a strong step in the right direction,” Andrews said after the governor signed the executive order. “We’re looking for more. We will continue to persist.”

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