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Felon Voting Rights Proposal Advances; Diverse Array of Groups Voice Support

naacp presidents testify at statehouse
Katarina Sostaric/IPR
Des Moines NAACP President Kameron Middlebrooks and Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews testify in support of restoring voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions at the statehouse Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to automatically restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions passed its first legislative hurdle Thursday. Groups of many political stripes advocated for it.

Staff from the Republican governor’s office, the NAACP, the ACLU, the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity and conservative Christian group The Family Leader all expressed support for a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have completed their sentence, including probation and parole. Currently, they have to individually appeal to the governor to regain the right to vote.

Daniel Zeno with the ACLU of Iowa said this would end Iowa’s current system of lifetime disenfranchisement for every felony. He said not all felonies are violent crimes.

“A young person who does something, damages a RAGBRAI bike that’s worth $1,500, could be convicted of a felony and lose their right to vote for the rest of their life,” Zeno said.

Americans for Prosperity State Director Drew Klein said civic engagement and voting should play a role in ex-offenders re-entering society.

“A key goal of our criminal justice system should be public safety, but there is no evidence to indicate that withholding voting rights helps achieve that goal,” Klein said.

Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews said this disproportionately affects African-Americans in the state, and says it’s like “wearing a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives.”

“If they are going to be taxed, if they are going to be expected to do all of the things that a citizen does, that they also should be allowed to have a say,” Andrews said.

Karl Schilling with the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance asked lawmakers to consider victims of crime. He said he doesn’t think an offender has paid their debt to society until they’ve paid restitution to the victims.

“I’m not saying we should amend the bill,” Schilling said. “But if we do the bill as it’s written, also keep in mind that we need to do something for the victims who need also to be restored.”

Other victim advocates support the proposal.

At the end of the meeting, the three-member House panel with two Republicans and one Democrat agreed to advance the measure, to a round of applause.

“When you’ve got this wide of a political variety of folks coming together to say this is the right thing to do, not to mention the public, not to mention victims themselves, this sends a very powerful statement that this is an issue that needs to be advanced well beyond the subcommittee,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

Rep. Mary Wolf, D-Clinton, and Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, also signed onto the resolution.

On the Senate side, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said Monday there is not a lot of support for this among Republicans on his committee.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter