Iowa governor signs order restoring felon voting rights

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order Wednesday granting convicted felons the right to vote after they complete their sentences, ending Iowa’s place as the only remaining state to broadly deny voting rights to felons.

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Reynolds, a Republican, fulfilled a promise she made in June to issue the order, though she said she'll continue to push the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment that would prevent future governors from overturning it.

Her order will not automatically restore voting rights to felons convicted of certain crimes, including first- and second-degree murder, attempted murder, fetal homicide and some sex offenses. Such felons would still need to petition the governor for the restoration of their voting rights. The order will not require felons to make full financial restitution to their victims before they'll be allowed to vote — a requirement that was opposed by Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which called for a a no-strings-attached order.

The order will restore the rights to an estimated 40,000 people who have completed prison sentences, probation and parole, said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, which has worked for several years for the change.

"We absolutely encourage people to take this day and register," she said. “Now our work is to make sure that people are registered and understand as of today they don't need to do paperwork, they don't need to do anything like that. As of today they are allowed to vote.”

Mark Stringer, the executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, lauded Reynold's order as a victory for the state.

“Iowa no longer is the only state in the country to permanently and for life ban its citizens from voting following any felony conviction,” Stringer said in a news release. “We’re relieved that the Governor’s order does not make eligibility to vote dependent on how much money a person has, that is, it’s not contingent on paying off fees and fines or other associated debts."

Reynolds has made the issue a priority, previously discussing her own struggle with alcoholism and drunken driving arrests before she sought treatment and got sober more than 20 years ago. She said felons deserve a second chance and that restoring their voting rights was part of that opportunity for redemption.

“It boils down to our fundamental belief in redemption and second chances,” Reynolds said before signing the order. “It’s a big step for so many on the road to redemption and proving to themselves and maybe to others that their crimes or convictions do not define them.”

Some of Reynolds' fellow Republicans opposed the move, saying they think some crimes are irredeemable and that felons who owe restitution to victims must pay it before getting their rights back. Such repayment schemes have been viewed by some as a poll tax that would prevent those who cannot afford repayment from ever voting.

After recent changes in Kentucky, Virginia and Florida, Iowa was left as the only state with broad constitutional language that revoked felons' voting rights. In Maine and Vermont, felons can even vote while they’re in prison. Sixteen states restore the vote upon release, and another 21 automatically restore it after the sentence is served, including parole and probation. Other states attach conditions for certain crimes.

Reynolds said she’ll continue to press the Republican-led Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment, which couldn't be reversed by a future governor. She proposed one last year but couldn't get Republican state senators to support it.

Rep. Ako Abdul Samad, a Black lawmaker who worked for two years with Reynolds on the issue, said he was happy about the order. But he said it's just one step in the broader fight against racial injustice.

“Were asking everyone to reach in their own hearts to begin dealing with the root cause. You need to help us show that black lives matter and if black lives did matter this wouldn't have been such a hoorah today. This would have been something that was already automatic,” he said.