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If Iowa Expands Felon Voting Rights, Senate Bill Would Add Restrictions

dawson and bisignano
Katarina Sostaric
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, and Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, discuss felon voting rights at the Iowa Capitol Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.

Republicans on an Iowa Senate panel advanced a bill Monday to exclude some Iowans with felony convictions from automatic voting rights restoration if a proposed constitutional amendment to expand felon voting rights passes.

Iowa is the only state that still permanently bans all felons from voting unless they apply to the governor for rights restoration.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has been asking the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. The House of Representatives passed it last year.

But Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said Senate Republicans believe Iowans convicted of murder, manslaughter and certain sex offenses should still have to apply to the governor to get their rights restored.

Dawson, who is a law enforcement officer, told stories of Iowans convicted of child sex abuse and second-degree murder. He said they could eventually be released from prison.

“I don’t want them voting for the president of the United States, let alone the local dogcatcher,” Dawson said.

Dawson’s bill would also require offenders who owe restitution payments to victims to pay them in full to get their voting rights back.

That aspect of the bill drew a lot of criticism from lobbyists and members of the public at a Monday hearing who said linking voting rights to income is wrong. Several mentioned that it’s unlikely people with a felony record will ever make much money, at least partly because it’s harder for them to get a job.

“We don’t think voting eligibility should come with a price,” said ACLU Iowa lobbyist Daniel Zeno.

“This is not a poll tax,” Dawson said. “It’s a murder tax. It’s a sexual assault tax. It’s a robbery tax…We’re not talking about people who randomly just got charged with felonies. We’re talking about persons who made an affirmative decision to go out and commit a serious crime.”

Dawson added not all felons are ordered to pay victim restitution.

Currently, felons applying to the governor’s office just have to show they’re keeping up with a payment plan to get their voting rights back.

Reynolds has previously said did not support policies that would make it harder than it already is to be able to vote again.

Lobbyist Kelly Meyers said the Iowa County Attorneys Association favors the restitution requirement.

“It’s the prosecutor’s job to seek truth and justice,” Meyers said. “And this would be justice on the part of the victim.”

But Heather Strachan with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa said she has survived abuse and disagrees with that approach. She said she feels safer if her abuser is participating in society and getting the treatment he needs.

“As a survivor, I urge you not to exclude people from voting based on ideas of repayment and protection in my name,” Strachan said.

Strachan added many offenders are also crime victims.

Linda Murken with the League of Women Voters of Iowa said these restrictions would add to existing confusion about who is allowed to vote. Some may not realize that the requirement to pay victim restitution does not include a requirement to pay fines and court fees.

Murken also mentioned the flawed felon voter list that has led to people wrongly having their ballots rejected. She said adding restrictions will make it harder for county and state elections and judicial branch officials to keep accurate information.

“I really believe you are creating a very complicated system that is not going to help election integrity—it’s going to hurt election integrity,” Murken said.

Dawson said he is not concerned about the voter list.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, agreed to move the bill forward, saying it could be enough to get him to support the constitutional amendment. Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, did not support the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter