Gov. Kim Reynolds deserves praise for her stopgap measure to restore voting rights to released felons prior to the possible passage of a constitutional amendment to resolve the matter.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is moving ahead with a statewide referendum to that effect, but it wouldn’t take effect until 2022.
Iowa and Kentucky are the only states to permanently deny felons the right to vote without dispensation by the governor. (Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature is trying to reverse a referendum passed in November to allow released felons to vote.)
According to a Des Moines Register poll, 69 percent of Iowans would be inclined to restore released felons’ voting rights by amending the 1857 state constitution, which disenfranchises anyone committing “infamous crimes.”
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for criminal justice reform, estimates 52,012 Iowans convicted of a felony can’t case ballots without their voting rights restored by the governor. Reynolds, a Republican, lifted the ban for 114 people during 2018-19.
Earlier this month, she unveiled a simple one-page application to be provided after release from prison or completing probation or parole. She wants to approve or deny applications within a month after receipt.
The information requested is about the most recent conviction, although it asks about parole or probation for prior felonies as well as fines, costs and restitution. A $15 fee for a criminal background check is waived.
Advocates for released felons believe the current three-page form is a disincentive, requiring various attachments and requests for information that could be overly intrusive (to “authorize any and all persons, firms or corporations, to release any and all information or documents they may now have or hereinafter receive concerning me” to the governor).
Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, signed an executive order in 2005 that automatically restored voting rights. Former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, rescinded it on his first day in office in 2011.
Reynolds is correct to pursue permanent change. Last fall, a legislative advisory board of 16 voting and six non-voting members, including four lawmakers, backed restoring voting rights.
“Iowans believe in second chances and we should help those individuals who want to re-enter society by restoring their voting rights, offering in-demand training, or encouraging additional education,” Reynolds said. “But we also must remember the victims and their families. Their voices continue to be heard as we balance felon rights with forgiveness and another chance at life.”
Legislators are still conflicted whether the constitutional amendment should require repayment in full of restitution and fines, which may sideline many individuals still in the process of meeting those obligations.
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Evidence of a good faith effort being made to pay restitution and fines should be sufficient, and Reynolds supports a bill with related issues resolved separately.
“I hope we keep the amendment to the constitution very clean and then, if we want to talk about some of those other areas, then I think that the statute is the place to do that through the legislative process,” she said.
Article II, Section 5, of the Iowa Constitution then would be amended to read: “Disqualified persons. A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any felony who has not discharged his or her sentence shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.”
While that initiative is praiseworthy, another supposed voter reform effort, in part, is not — most notably prohibiting satellite-voting locations from being set up “in any state-owned building.”
That’s simply a Republican ruse to keep students at the three regents universities — largely Democratic — from casting their ballots on campus. It wouldn’t apply to community colleges.
It makes as much sense as a Democratic-controlled Statehouse prohibiting voting at places of worship — presumably as a church and state issue — to thwart evangelical Christians.
In 2017, Iowa reformed voting laws after President Donald Trump cited massive fraud, which proved virtually nonexistent. Government-issued identification cards were required and the early voting period was shortened from 40 to 29 days, although it was too long in any event.
Democrats were outraged at a perceived effort to squelch their support among minorities.
An analysis of various studies by the FiveThirtyEight website found that prospective black and Latino voters were negatively impacted, but not in overwhelming numbers. Instead, Democrats were re-energized to get out the vote.
In the long term, the voters most at risk by this reform are the elderly, often without a driver’s license or government photo ID, who largely skew Republican.
We’re glad the Legislature is in the process of doing the right thing by restoring the rights of released felons to vote to bring Iowa in line with 48 other states.
But banning satellite voting at the three state universities is petty, childish and will backfire again. Drop it.