Which felons get to vote? Republicans and Democrats argue exemptions

By: - March 9, 2020 2:35 pm

State Reps. Steve Holt, Bobby Kaufmann and Mary Wolfe, from left, meet to discuss a bill exempting certain felons from automatic voting rights. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

To ultimately pass a constitutional amendment granting felons the automatic right to vote, Republican legislators argue lawmakers must first pass a bill that continues to exempt some felons from voting restoration.

But it’s a measure that will continue to unequally disenfranchise felons who have served their time, Democrats and religious organizations argued during a House subcommittee Monday. 

Without the exemptions though, state Rep. Steve Holt, R-Dension, said he doesn’t believe Republican legislators will agree to pass the constitutional amendment. GOP leaders did not bring the amendment up for the debate in the Senate in 2019.

“Behind every felony, there is a victim,” Holt said. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Senate File 2348 requires convicted felons to pay any restitution they owe victims of their crimes before the ex-convicts’ right to vote is restored. It also excludes automatic voting rights to felons who are convicted of killing someone, rape, sexual assault and first-degree election misconduct.

It goes into effect if a constitutional amendment for felon voting rights becomes law. 

House Republicans on the subcommittee adopted the exemption bill after it passed the Senate on March 3.  

But the bill treats low-income felons unequally because of the victim restitution requirement, said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton. 

Low-income people will have to wait longer for their voting rights because they may need months or years to fully pay restitution. Meanwhile, people with more economic means may immediately get their rights restored, even if they committed the same felony.

Victims should get restitution but Wolfe said it is not right to require full payment upfront. 

Lobbyists with the Iowa Conference of Methodist Church and Iowa Catholic Conference proposed felons have the option to enroll in payment plans for restoration.

“I do not see any justice in requiring that person to wait months or years to have his rights restored,” Wolfe said.

Proponents for the bill argued the governor still holds executive power to restore rights on a case-by-case situation. They also said they wanted to ensure justice for victims of felonies.

“We never make victims whole,” said Kelly Meyers of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. “But we do have a system that has some small measure to account for the loss. Providing that pecuniary damage is important to the victims.”

The House is planning to debate the bill on Wednesday.

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