Reprinted from the Des Moines Register April 10.
Do Republicans controlling the Iowa Legislature not want people to vote? One can’t help but wonder.
First there was the 2017 voter ID law to respond to nonexistent fraud. It resulted in confusion, expense, court challenges and unnecessary barriers to casting a ballot. This year the GOP proposed legislation to ban hosting satellite voting stations in state-owned buildings. This would prevent early voting on college campuses and the Iowa Veterans Home.
Now, a Senate committee has refused to advance a bill taking the first step toward allowing Iowans to decide whether to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their criminal sentences. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, was among those who refused to move the measure forward.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “This is a long process.”
The GOP is doing its best to ensure that giving voters the opportunity to amend the state constitution is an especially long process — or perhaps will never happen.
The Senate committee’s failure to act was also an insult to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has said restoring rights is one of her top priorities. She understands the importance of giving people a fresh start after paying their debt for wrongdoing.
She knows that permanently marginalizing people makes it harder for them to feel like part of a community and forge a better future.
She said she was “disappointed” by the lack of legislative action and would “not give up the fight for Iowans who deserve a second chance.”
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Now it’s time to see if Reynolds is serious about not giving up. Because restoring rights does not have to be a long process. It doesn’t require legislative action or amending the constitution.
The governor can and should sign an executive order restoring voting rights for felons who are not incarcerated. She has an opportunity to show she can be an independent leader who is not beholden to the extremists in her political party.
And signing an executive order is hardly a radical move. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack did exactly that in 2005. It allowed tens of thousands of Iowans to be active participants in democracy. Six years later, Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded the order, returning Iowa to one of only a few states banning felons from voting for life unless they successfully beg a governor to restore their rights.
Reynolds is no longer Branstad’s sidekick. She has the power to do what is right and fair for Iowans. If restoring voting rights to felons is really her priority, she can prove it with an executive order.
Numerous states have restored voting rights to felons using constitutional amendments and legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, governors can and do act on their own.
In 2018, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order removing the restriction on parolees voting.
In 2016, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence and their term of supervised release.
In 2015, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order to automatically restore the right to vote (and to hold public office) to certain offenders, excluding those who were convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.
In 2013, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed an executive order creating new rights restoration processes for people with prior felony convictions.