Strong support in Iowa House for restoring voting rights

The Iowa House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted on March 6 to advance a state constitutional amendment on automatic restoration of voting rights after an offender has completed a felony sentence. The action indicates one of Governor Kim Reynolds’ priorities for the 2019 legislative session should clear the lower chamber with little resistance.

Iowa is one of only two states that disenfranchises most people with felony convictions for life. House Study Bill 68 would amend Article II, Section 5 of Iowa’s constitution. The current text reads, “A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.” (A state law defines all felonies as “infamous crimes.”)

The new text would read, “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.”

A House Judiciary subcommittee unanimously advanced the legislation in January after more than a dozen people testified in favor of the proposal and none opposed it. More than twenty organizations representing government bodies, political, religious, social services, or advocacy groups are registered in favor. They include conservative heavyweights like Americans for Prosperity and the FAMiLY Leader. No lobbyists are registered against it.

Governor Kim Reynolds released this statement shortly after the committee vote.

Today’s unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee sends a strong message in favor of second chances and forgiveness for felons. It highlights the broad commitment of supporters for a constitutional amendment and another step forward to give Iowans a vote on this issue.

Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee chair Brad Zaun indicated earlier this year that he opposes automatic restoration of voting rights. He introduced a bill that would stipulate,

A person shall not be considered to have discharged a sentence for purposes of Article II, section 5, of the Constitution of the State of Iowa unless the person has paid all restitution, court costs, fines, surcharges, or penalties the person owes as a result of the person’s conviction and has been removed from the sex offender registry established in chapter 692A.

Caroline Cummings of CBS-2 TV in Cedar Rapids noticed that Zaun’s bill was pulled from a Senate Judiciary subcommittee calendar on March 6 and is not on the calendar for March 7–the day before the legislature’s “funnel” deadline for non-appropriations bills.

Zaun told Erin Murphy of Lee Newspapers that “he pulled it because his judiciary schedule is too busy, so he’s not doing it this week, and he thought the House was taking care of it.” At this writing, the House Judiciary Committee does not appear to have passed any bill tying court costs or restitution payments to a discharge of a criminal sentence. And rightly so, since that would be tantamount to a poll tax. Committing a crime would lead to lifetime disenfranchisement for the indigent, while well-off people could exercise their fundamental constitutional right immediately after completing a prison sentence or probation.

Altering Iowa’s constitution is a lengthy process. If the state House and Senate pass the amendment on voting rights this year, both legislative chambers would need to approve identical wording in 2021 or 2022 in order to put the measure on a statewide ballot for voter approval in 2022.

Reynolds could and should sign an executive order setting up an automatic restoration process, modeled on Governor Tom Vilsack’s 2005 order, which Governor Terry Branstad rescinded immediately after taking office in 2011. Although a constitutional amendment is important to prevent some future governor from reinstating a bad policy, an estimated 52,000 affected Iowans should not have to wait until 2023 to vote.

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