Yet another session of the Iowa Legislature has closed without movement on automatically restoring the voting rights of felons after they have completed their sentences, despite the fact that Gov. Kim Reynolds opened the session calling for the issue to have top priority.
It’s time for Reynolds to take matters into her own hands and sign an executive order to get it done. Reynolds confirmed Tuesday that she plans to sign such an order before the November general election, and she should do so.
Last week, the Iowa House of Representatives had some movement on the issue, passing a measure but not before adding a clause requiring all restitution be repaid before voting rights would be restored. That amendment proved controversial, with Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, calling it “another knee on the neck of a black man.”
Proponents suggest that paying restitution is, in fact, part of sentencing, and a sentence is not technically concluded until it is paid in full. But the fact of the matter is restitution in some cases extends for years and even a lifetime, well beyond the time served. An alternative could be to allow voting rights to be restored as long as the convicted felon is meeting the requirements of making restitution payments.
But keeping tabs on that sounds like a tall order for a process that is already riddled with bureaucratic hoops that people convicted of a felony must jump through to be able to vote once they have served out their sentences and paid court fines.
When Reynolds announced in her 2019 Condition of the State speech that she would make automatically restoring felon voting rights a priority, Iowa was one of only two states that didn’t already have this process in place. Today, it is the only state.
It hasn’t always been that way. In 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order automatically restoring felons’ voting rights once they left state supervision. His successor, Chet Culver, continued that policy during his four-year term.
When Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s office in 2011, he switched to his previous practice of a lifetime ban on voting unless the privilege is specifically restored by the governor. The application process is complicated. Many convicts don’t go through the hassle.
Reynolds is right: It’s time to change the rule. Ideally, it would be specifically mandated by law, passed by the Legislature, rather than the whim of governors issuing executive orders. The back-and-forth creates confusion and inconsistency. But over the weekend, Iowa Senate Republicans, for the second year in a row, killed a proposed constitutional amendment, with some suggesting they did so because they anticipated an executive order to be forthcoming.
While the consistency of a constitutional amendment would be preferable, Reynolds’ executive order remains the only option at this point.
In a year in which lawmakers unanimously supported a historic police reform bill, and Reynolds signed it into law outside amid chants of “Black Lives Matter” out on the steps of the Capitol, failure to act on felony voting rights would be to miss a key change supported by the movement as well as the governor. It’s time for Reynolds to sign the executive order automatically restoring felon voting rights once their sentences have been served and fines paid. The time has come.