Did you know that Iowa is the only remaining state in the nation to deny voting rights to felons for life? This state is the only state that bars felons from voting unless the governor approves a voting rights application. A permanent solution is long overdue and is needed now!

While Gov. Kim Reynolds is to be commended for her commitment to sign an executive order this summer or early fall, and for her ongoing efforts to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences and have been paroled, we need a more permanent solution. Last year and this year she asked the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would automatically restore voting rights. The Legislature adjourned last month and again failed to approve this measure.

Executive orders are not permanent solutions and have created confusion. Gov. Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to 50,000 felons by executive order in 2005. Then in 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the action in a dueling executive order. As Governor Reynolds said recently, “I think it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the governor’s chair.” A permanent solution is needed.


Ex-felons deserve a second chance. They have paid their debt to society. The goals of corrections are for people to be reformed, rehabilitated, and successfully re-enter society. Allowing ex-felons to vote would help in their reintroduction into society. Voting fosters respect for the law and participating in the common good.

Current policies that impose punitive, long-term sanctions must be reformed for the sake of successful re-entry and the reduction of recidivism. Restrictions, including the denial of the right to vote, restricted access to public housing, ineligibility for public assistance or educational loans, and barriers to employment for their entire lives due both to employer’s increased access to criminal records and exclusion from occupations, harms ex-felons personally and financially.

These restrictions are counter productive and often lead to re-incarceration.

We need to increase the possibility of successful re-entry to society. The main responsibility lies, finally, with the offender, but impediments to successful re-entry need to be removed to the greatest extent possible.

Furthermore, denying voting rights to ex-felons for life contributes to the racial divide polarizing our nation. Almost 8% of black adults (more than two million Americans) are prevented from voting because of felony convictions, compared to just under 2% of non-African-American citizens. More than 60,000 Iowans, including nearly 1 in 10 African Americans, are barred from voting in Iowa due to a prior felony conviction.

People of faith, centered in Judeo-Christian values, advocate for a comprehensive perspective on matters related to the criminal justice system and the many communities affected by this system.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) social statement on criminal justice, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, emphasizes that “Criminal justice mindsets need to be transformed that challenges the logic equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.”

As we move into the fall election season and into the new year, ask the candidates for the Iowa House and Senate, if they intend to support a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to ex-felons, and advocate with them and members of the Iowa Legislature in 2021 to get this done early in the next legislative session.

Permitting ex-felons to vote is an important step toward reintegrating people who have paid their debt back to society. A permanent solution is needed now.

The Rev. Neil P. Harrison is the senior pastor of First Lutheran Church

in Maquoketa and a former Iowa legislator.