Thousands of Iowans with felony convictions who have served their sentences can now participate in November's presidential election after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order Wednesday restoring their voting rights.
Reynolds, a Republican, signed the executive order Wednesday morning in her office at the Iowa Capitol, flanked by a group of local leaders and legislators.
"Quite simply, when someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crimes, they should have their right to vote restored, automatically, plain and simple," she said.
Iowa was the last state in the nation that still banned all people with felony convictions from voting — even after the completion of their sentences — unless they applied individually to the governor's office to have their rights restored.
Reynolds has spent the past two years advocating for the Iowa Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights but had resisted calls to sign an executive order, saying she believes a constitutional amendment is the best solution because it can't be changed by a future governor.
This summer, after Republicans in the Iowa Senate did not pass the amendment and after George Floyd's death prompted increased advocacy on racial justice issues, she announced she would sign the order.
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Iowa's felon voting ban was estimated to affect tens of thousands of people. The Iowa Department of Corrections has discharged an average of 5,000 people with felony convictions annually in recent years, according to Sam Langholz, the governor's legal counsel. A 2016 report from The Sentencing Project found that the ban affected nearly one in 10 African-American adults.
Restoring the right to vote for Iowans with felony records has been a priority for advocacy groups such as the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa for years. The issue received heightened attention this summer as protests for racial justice swept across the country after the death of Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, in the custody of a white police officer. Activists with Des Moines Black Lives Matter made the voting rights issue one of their top demands for the governor.
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, spoke at the signing ceremony, wearing a T-shirt with the image of late civil rights leader and voting rights champion U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17. He thanked Reynolds for signing the order and described it as "a tribute to the legacy of Congressman Lewis."
"Many hands went into this, but it boiled down to the governor taking the stand, standing up to a promise that I know we had talked about over two years ago," he said.
Who is eligible to vote? And who isn't?
Reynolds' order states that felons must have discharged their sentence, including any parole and probation, before their voting rights will be restored. Anyone still serving a prison sentence for a felony conviction will not be able to vote.
The order does not automatically grant voting rights to people convicted of felonies outlined in Iowa Code chapter 707, which includes murder and manslaughter. People convicted of serious sexual abuse crimes will need to complete any special sentences before their voting rights are restored. Those special sentences last either 10 years or for life, depending on the crime, meaning people convicted of the most serious sexual crimes will never automatically regain their voting rights.
Those whose voting rights are not automatically restored under the order can still petition the governor individually to have them restored.
The executive order does not require people with felony convictions to fully pay back any restitution payments owed to their victims before regaining their rights, as was included in a bill introduced by Republicans in the Iowa Senate earlier this year. But the order does not relieve them from making their payments.
Nearly one in four Iowa felony convictions in the last two years came with a judgment ordering restitution to be paid to victims. The average tab for those nearly 4,000 convictions is $11,607.
MORE DETAILS: Who's eligible to vote about executive order signing?
A summer-long push for action
Reynolds' signature on the executive order comes 50 days after she publicly confirmed in June that she would sign such an order after meeting twice with activists from Des Moines Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and the ACLU of Iowa.
Since that pledge, Des Moines Black Lives Matter organizers have continued to pressure Reynolds to act quickly. They have held several events to organize around the issue and have shown up at Reynolds' home and public appearances to chant and wave signs supporting immediate action.
Matthew Bruce, an organizer with Des Moines Black Lives Matter, said he didn't agree with how the executive order prevents automatic restoration for people on probation or parole. But he said he was encouraged to see that the order doesn't require payment of restitution.
"I was very glad about the restitution piece, and I thought that was the biggest victory out of all of this," he said.
At a Des Moines Black Lives Matter news conference Wednesday, organizers said that they were not notified of or invited to the signing of the executive order. They called the signing "a small victory."
"We were fighting for the voting rights of every single person who has been convicted of a felony, and this executive order does not go far enough in re-enfranchising every single Iowan who's been convicted of a felony." said Jaylen Cavil, a Des Moines Black Lives Matter organizer. "In the United States of America, voting rights shouldn't be conditional on anything."
Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said that although Reynolds has been under increased pressure this summer, the NAACP, the ACLU and others have been advocating for the restoration of voting rights for years.
"Yes, there has been increased effort to increase pressure, increased visibility to the efforts that we have been working on," she said. "But we definitely have a plan, and we definitely understand that though things are kind of happening right now, many of those things were scheduled to happen right now."
Voting rights advocates have pointed to the closing window of time leading up to the Nov. 3 election, which is now less than three months away. They say they need as much time as possible to educate Iowans with felony convictions on whether they are now eligible to vote and to get them registered, which involves making sure they have identification and proof of residency.
"We got it done, I feel like, in a timely manner," Reynolds said. "Individuals will have ample time to get registered and to participate in the process in Iowa. We're one of the states where you can register the same day that you can vote."
Andrews said the NAACP will be working to educate people about the order and get them registered to vote ahead of the election.
"Now, our work is to make sure that people are registered," she said. "As of today, they are allowed to vote."
Bruce said a main focus for Des Moines Black Lives Matter will now be voter engagement and education, helping those in the community who now qualify to vote to get registered, he said. The group will also push for a constitutional amendment once the legislative session begins, he said.
Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, called it a historic day and praised the activists who have kept up pressure on Reynolds and legislative leaders.
"We wish there weren't exemptions, but we'll keep working on the constitutional amendment, as the governor alluded to," Stringer said. "And I just don't think we can underestimate the human impact of this executive order today. This affects real people's lives and their families and communities in this state."
Election officials will also need to update their list of who is eligible to vote. The Iowa Secretary of State's office maintains a database of people with felony convictions that in the past has erroneously listed people as ineligible to vote.
Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said July 28 that the office was "prepared to pivot its felon initiative" to assist in implementing the executive order once it was signed by the governor.
Reynolds' executive order provides that the Department of Corrections will provide the secretary of state's office with records at least weekly of anyone covered by the order who has discharged their sentence.
Reynolds vows new effort to pass constitutional amendment
In her remarks, Reynolds again emphasized her commitment to eventually restoring voting rights through a constitutional amendment.
“Let me be clear, an executive order is at best a temporary solution,” she said. “It can be changed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor, which is not good enough. Something that is fundamentally right should not be based on the benevolence of a single elected official.”
For the past two years, the governor has called for amending the Iowa Constitution to automatically restore voting rights to felons once they have completed their sentences. Each year, the measure failed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Reynolds has said she will try again.
"We're going to continue to negotiate and look for a permanent solution, and we'll see where those conversations go," she said. "I've had a lot of legislators reach out. They're very interested in continuing that conversation. So I'm very optimistic about that."
Iowa's rules for felon voting have seesawed in the past. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, signed an executive order restoring voting rights for felons in 2005, but Reynolds' predecessor, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, rescinded it shortly after taking office in 2011.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, criticized Senate Republicans for an "absence of leadership" on passing an amendment.
"This is a temporary solution," Petersen said in a statement. "A permanent solution was blocked by Senate Republicans, who failed to amend the Iowa Constitution to allow more Iowans to vote."
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, praised Reynolds for signing the executive order.
"The House took action on the constitutional amendment in 2019, and I look forward to continue working with the Governor and Senate to find resolution next session," Grassley said in a statement.
Reynolds said she plans to continue to work with her criminal justice task force on reducing inequalities in the justice system. She pointed to how the task force has been focusing on forming recommendations for anti-racial profiling legislation.
"We'll take a look at what they recommend and go from there," she said.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs order restoring felon voting rights