Iowa lawmakers had their chance. Now governor should issue voting rights order

“Let them vote! Let them vote!” Black Lives Matter protesters chanted a few minutes after Governor Kim Reynolds signed a police reform bill on June 12. Reynolds did not acknowledge hearing them, continuing to pass out pens to advocates of the legislation, which the Iowa House and Senate had unanimously approved the night before.

The protesters want the governor to sign an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to Iowans who have completed felony sentences. Iowa has the country’s strictest felon voting ban, which disproportionately disenfranchises African Americans. Reynolds has resisted calls to issue an executive order, saying she wants the legislature to approve a state constitutional amendment on felon voting instead.

The Iowa legislature adjourned for the year on June 14 without the constitutional amendment clearing the Senate.

For many thousands of Iowans with felony convictions, an order from Reynolds provides the only path to voting before 2024. She should issue one as soon as possible.

AMENDMENT STALLED IN 2019

The Iowa Constitution currently bans a person “convicted of any infamous crime” from voting for life, unless the governor restores that individual’s voting rights. A state law defines all felonies as “infamous crimes.”

During her January 2019 address to the legislature, Reynolds noted that she had used her power to restore voting rights for 88 Iowans. Nevertheless,

I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person.

After the election, an Iowan stopped me at my grandson’s basketball game in Waukee. I had restored his rights and he wanted to tell me, in person, how much it meant to him. How, when he stepped into the voting booth, he felt a dignity that had been missing, even after leaving prison.

I don’t think this man and others like him who have completed their sentences should have to wait for my say or any future governor’s say before they get that dignity back.

Our founders gave us a process to amend the constitution, should the passage of time change our view. Let’s begin that process now. I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption; let’s put this issue in their hands.

Amending Iowa’s constitution is a lengthy process. Two separately elected legislatures must approve identical language in both chambers. Then, the measure must receive a majority of votes in a statewide election.

In March 2019, the Iowa House approved by 95 votes to 2 House Joint Resolution 14, a constitutional amendment that would disenfranchise only those “convicted of any felony” who have “not discharged his or her sentence.”

That measure stalled in the Senate, where influential Republicans wanted strings attached. They argued those who had committed certain violent crimes should remain ineligible and others should pay “all restitution, court costs, fines, surcharges, or penalties” before regaining the right to vote. The impact would be to provide access to democracy for those with money to spare while keeping indigent people from ever casting a ballot.

“POLL TAX” APPROVED TO CATER TO SENATE REPUBLICANS

To get the wheels moving, Republican State Senator Dan Dawson introduced a bill early this year to define “discharge of sentence.” Under Senate File 2348, Iowans would need to complete all terms of prison, parole, or probation and pay all restitution in order to become eligible to vote again. For certain offenses (murder, rape, or endangerment related to the death of a child, or election misconduct), the governor would need to take special action to restore that person’s voting rights.

The bill would take effect only after Iowans ratified a constitutional amendment on voting rights for people with felony convictions, and it would be automatically repealed if such an amendment was not adopted before January 2023.

Republicans and six Democrats in the Iowa Senate approved the bill in March. House leaders brought the bill to the floor on June 3, the first day the legislature came back to work after its pandemic-related suspension.

During that House debate, more than half a dozen Democrats warned the legislation was tantamount to a “poll tax,” tying voting rights to the ability to pay. Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe, a longtime defense attorney, warned that the bill would perpetuate injustice for the poor, who are already at a huge disadvantage when charged with crimes. State Representative Marti Anderson, who spent much of her career running the victims assistance division of the Iowa Attorney General’s office, said she had never heard a crime victim say they were worried about the offender becoming able to vote. State Representatives Ras Smith and Ross Wilburn, two of five African Americans now serving in the legislature, called attention to systemic disparities affecting certain groups.

Nevertheless, the House approved the bill along party lines. Reynolds signed it into law the next day, saying in a news release,

“By balancing the rights of victims and the importance of redemption, we can move forward with historic change for voting rights in Iowa. This legislation allows us to implement our proposed constitutional amendment restoring the voting rights of Iowans who have completed serving their sentence. The right to vote is the cornerstone of being a part of any society, and I am proud of the broad coalition supporting this amendment.”

Senate Republicans got what they wanted, but they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the constitutional amendment last week, with four panel Republicans voting no, leadership never brought the bill to the floor.

Surely there were nine GOP senators willing to join the seventeen Democrats present this weekend to approve the amendment. But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and President Charles Schneider chose to keep it from a full vote in the chamber.

The upshot is that the Iowa House and Senate would have to approve a voting rights amendment in 2021 or 2022, and then approve the same language in 2023 or 2024, before Iowans would have the chance to ratify the proposal on a statewide ballot in 2024.

A June 14 news release from the governor’s office hailed the legislature’s 2020 accomplishments without mentioning the failure to act on a voting rights amendment.

REYNOLDS COULD SOLVE THE PROBLEM TOMORROW

Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack established an automatic process for restoring voting rights. Before his July 2005 executive order, Iowa had “the highest rate of African-American disfranchisement in the nation,” according to statistics the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund cited in a 2015 brief (enclosed in full below). Nearly 25 percent of African-American adults in Iowa were disenfranchised, “more than triple the national African-American disfranchisement rate” of 7.5 percent.

An estimated 115,000 Iowans regained their voting rights during the five and a half years Vilsack’s order was in effect.

Governor Terry Branstad rescinded the order on his first day back in office in January 2011. He went on to restore voting rights to only 206 people with felony convictions over the next six and a half years. Reynolds has done the same for a few hundred more people, but tens of thousands of Iowans–including about one in ten African-American adults–remain ineligible to vote.

In October 2019, I asked Reynolds why she won’t resolve this issue through an executive order. She replied,

The problem with that is there’s uncertainty and it focuses all kind of confusion into the process. Some people don’t know if they can, or what the process is. So for right now, I want to bring some certainty and predictability and finality to it. I don’t want it to be determined on whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair, which way that that goes.

So I believe the best way to move forward is with a constitutional amendment.

An executive order covering every Iowan who has completed a felony sentence would be less confusing than the current situation, where a small fraction of the disenfranchised figure out how to jump through the right hoops to get an application on the governor’s desk.

Voting rights restoration is now a consensus issue for Democrats. Assuming Reynolds plans to seek re-election in 2022, no other Republican could win a governor’s election until 2026 at the earliest. Public opinion has shifted dramatically on this issue over the past decade. Influential conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the FAMiLY Leader now lobby for restoring voting rights to those previously convicted of felonies. It seems unlikely any governor elected after Reynolds would reverse an order.

According to Black Lives Matter protesters, who finally got a meeting with the governor on June 12, the governor’s staff will draw up a draft order for them to review. Reynolds has not committed to signing one, however.

She should do so at the earliest opportunity. The governor’s inaction up to now has already deprived thousands of Iowans from participating in city and school board elections in 2017 and 2019, primary and general elections in 2018, the 2020 Iowa caucuses, and this year’s primary election–which inspired record-setting statewide turnout.

Reynolds gave legislators more than enough time to act. She gave them the poll tax GOP senators demanded. Yet a constitutional amendment goes back to square one when the House and Senate reconvene in January 2021.

The governor has promised repeatedly to address the notorious racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

She should make good on that pledge. The young Black Lives Matter activists put it best, in simple terms. Let them vote.

UPDATE: Encouraging news from Iowa Public Radio’s Katarina Sostaric.

Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said Sunday that last week he learned from Reynolds’ office that she intends to pursue an executive order to immediately restore felon voting rights.

“From a senate standpoint…to go down an executive order process really kind of renders the constitutional process moot,” Dawson said. “So that was the decision and pivot point in the end on this.”

But Dawson also said a majority of Senate Republicans were already not going to support the proposed constitutional amendment in its current form, which says people with felony convictions can get their voting rights automatically restored when they complete their sentence.

Reynolds deferred to lawmakers for too long, but she can repair some of the damage by issuing an order now.
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Appendix: Amicus curiae brief the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund presented to the Iowa Supreme Court in connection with the 2016 Griffin case, which challenged the state’s practices on depriving voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions. This document explores in great detail the racist origins of felon disenfranchisement policies as well as their racially disparate impacts.

Top photo of Governor Kim Reynolds speaking at the police reform bill signing posted on the governor’s official Twitter feed.

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