Iowa felons regain their voting rights after Reynolds signs executive order

By: - August 5, 2020 12:25 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs an executive order automatically granting most felons the right to vote. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order automatically granting most felons their voting rights — eliminating Iowa’s distinction as the only state in the country that requires all felons to go through an application and approval process.

Reynolds signed the order in her office Wednesday morning and acknowledged that while it is only a temporary move, restoring felon voting is a step toward racial equity in Iowa. 

The order was timed to allow former felons to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs an executive order that automatically restores voting rights to felons. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

“This is a cause on which so many Iowans have worked on for years,” Reynolds said. “It boils down to our fundamental belief in redemption and second chances.”

Reynolds said Iowa “holds the unfortunate status as the only state in the country that prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from voting or holding public office for life. It means that people who have served their sentence and are seeking to get their lives back on track permanently are prohibited from one of the most basic rights a citizen should have unless a single individual decides otherwise.”

‘I’m super excited to vote’

Eric Harris, a 41-year-old dad in Iowa City, has two non-violent felonies on his record and has been unable to vote until now because of them.

Following his convictions, Harris went on to receive a degree from community college and recently purchased a home for his family. In the last four years, he has also become more politically engaged following the election of President Donald Trump.

He watched Reynolds sign the proclamation through a livestream.

“It’s well overdue,” Harris said. “I’m very happy about it.”

Eric Harris, 41, of Iowa City, has been advocating for the restoration of felon voting rights in Iowa. He will get to vote for the first time this November in 22 years. (Photo submitted by ACLU of Iowa)

There are a number of issues he cares about, including the environment, income inequality, childcare and gender equality that he wants to take action on. 

Not only is he excited to vote in the general election, but Harris said he’s also prepared to vote in local city council and school board elections as well.

He hopes his story can serve as motivation for other felons that they can make changes in their lives and become more politically active.

“I’m not different than everyone else,” Harris said. “I just want to show other people there’s a way out.”

Details from the executive order

Starting Wednesday, felons will have their voting rights automatically restored if they have finished serving their sentences, including any parole or probation. 

Reynolds said she will continue to restore voting rights on a daily basis and the Iowa Department of Corrections will provide weekly records to the Iowa Secretary of State to update its database of eligible voters.

Cord Overton, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections, estimates 4,600 to 4,700 people a year will have their voting rights restored.

Distinctly, the order does not address any restitution requirements, which was heavily pushed by Republicans during this year’s legislative session. Earlier this year, Reynolds agreed to sign a bill that would require felons to pay victim restitution before their voting rights were restored if a constitutional amendment passed.

But Reynolds said restitution was never a measure she advocated for.

“When you’re negotiating, there’s some things you have to negotiate to keep it moving forward, Reynolds said.

The executive order does exclude automatic restoration for felons convicted of serious crimes.

Iowans who are convicted of a felony under Iowa Code 707 will not gain automatic voting restoration and must request the governor restore their rights under a case-by-case process.

Federal crimes under the code include homicide, manslaughter and attempted murder.

Iowans who are convicted of a serious sex crime under Iowa Code 903B and undergo special sentencing may also not receive automatic voting restoration. Felons convicted of a sex crimes that are class B or class C felonies are placed under a lifetime sentence and must request voting restoration from the governor.

Crimes under this category include sexual abuse in the first, second and third degrees.

A push to pass an executive order in light of the Black Lives Matter movement

Since the start of her tenure as governor, Reynolds has supported voting restoration for Iowa felons, repeatedly lamenting Iowa’s ranking as the last state to impose a lifetime ban on felon voting.

However, prior to heavy pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, Reynolds said she did not want to sign an executive order and preferred the Iowa Legislature passing a constitutional amendment instead.

Matthew Bruce, an organizer with Des Moines Black Lives Matter, speaks with reporters and protesters outside Polk County Jail after he was released on Wednesday. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

After the Black Lives Matter movement gained major momentum nationwide and in Iowa following the death of George Floyd, Reynolds told Black Lives Matter leaders in Des Moines that she would sign an executive order and later publicly committed to it.

In Iowa, Black people and people of color make up a disproportionate amount of the state’s prison population.

Out of the 7,528 prisoners who were incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons in June, 26% of them were Black, while 7% were Hispanic or Latino. But Black people only make up 4% of Iowa’s population, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanic and Latino Iowans only make up 6% of the population.

The order and the exclusion of restitution is a major win for the movement, said Matthew Bruce, a leader in Des Moines Black Lives Matter. Reynolds signing the order shows the power the public has to make change and he believes that will be reflected in the November election.

“We can build momentum and power,” Bruce said. “We’re only going to pick up speed and move forward and get more of these changes that are overdue.”

While there are some things to celebrate, Bruce said there are problems as well with the executive order, including the exclusion of people on parole or probation and the exclusion of felons who are convicted of serious crimes.

If the criminal and judicial systems treated all races equally, Bruce said excluding some felons may have been acceptable. However, Bruce said the system is inherently prejudiced against Black people and people of color, which will be reflected in who is convicted.

“It would be one thing if we believed that this system was fairly prosecuting these people,” Bruce said. “But the system isn’t just.”

Bruce said he is disappointed Reynolds did not give the public a chance to offer input on the executive order. He said members of Black Lives Matter were not aware Reynolds was planning to sign it until 40 minutes prior to her press conference on Wednesday.

“She’s been trying to block us out of the narrative,” Bruce said.

The group will push to advance a constitutional amendment when the legislative session starts next year.

Reynolds acknowledged the consequences the lack of felon voting rights has for Black Iowans and said she still wants the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment. She said organizations have been pushing for a change in felon voting for years, including the NAACP and ACLU of Iowa.

“Something that is fundamentally right should not be based on the benevolence of a single individual,” Reynolds said.

“As we work to address racial disparities, we cannot ignore how negatively and significantly the current process has impacted the lives of so many Iowans of color,” Reynolds said. “The right to vote and seek public office is important for so many reasons.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley sent out a statement on Wednesday supporting the governor’s decision.

“I commend Governor Reynolds for making a commitment, listening to Iowans, and following through on her promise by signing today’s executive order. I also appreciate that she has ensured that those individuals convicted of the most serious and heinous crimes will not receive blanket restoration,” Grassley said in his statement.

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