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Senate Passes Felon Voting Restrictions, Governor Supports Compromise

senator dan dawson
John Pemble / IPR
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said she will support a bill the Iowa Senate passed Tuesday to put some restrictions on felon voting rights restoration if that’s what it takes to advance her proposed constitutional amendment.

Reynolds’ proposal would automatically restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions who complete their sentences, including probation and parole. It has to pass the legislature twice before going on the ballot for voters to decide.

The House of Representatives passed it last year nearly unanimously, but Senate Republicans didn’t hold a vote on it. Now, they’ve passed a bill 37-11, with support from some Democrats, that would add restrictions to the reinstatement of voting rights. The action moves Senate Republicans closer to supporting felon voting rights restoration.

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, the lead lawmaker on this bill, said he sees it as a “good-faith effort” to find a compromise on the issue.

The bill that passed the Senate Tuesday prevents automatic rights restoration for people convicted of a handful of specific crimes: murder, manslaughter, child endangerment resulting in death, election fraud, and those with special sentences for sex offenses. It would also require full payment of victim restitution as a condition of voting rights restoration.

“Instead of adopting a view that all felons are now the new victim here in Iowa, what we’re trying to do here in the Senate is say, let’s bring this back to the victims where this process all started to begin with,” Dawson said.

These restrictions would take effect if Iowans ratify a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights.

Iowa is the only state that still permanently bans all people with felony convictions from voting, unless they appeal directly to the governor. 

Reynolds has repeatedly said she does not want to make regaining the vote harder than the current process, which requires applicants to be on a payment plan for fines, fees and victim restitution.

She was asked Tuesday if she has concerns about the Senate bill.

“No, because right now, they have to have a payment plan for everything,” Reynolds said. “So they’ve really narrowed the scope to say for victims, that the restitution has to be paid.”

Reynolds said her main priority is to keep restrictions out of the constitutional amendment itself, and the Senate bill achieves that.

“Compromise is part of—that’s how we get things done,” Reynolds said. “When you show no willingness to compromise, then nothing ever happens.”

Some are concerned about the requirement to pay victim restitution because it ties voting rights to money.

According to the Iowa Judicial Branch, about one-fourth of people with felony convictions were ordered to pay victim restitution in each of the past two fiscal years. The average amount was about $11,000 to $12,000, but the actual amounts owed by people getting out of jail might look very different.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, offered an amendment so people with felony convictions would have to be on a payment plan for victim restitution to get their voting rights back, not have it paid off in full.

“I believe this is important because it addresses this severe disparity that would exist for people based on their financial ability to pay,” Hogg said.

His amendment failed.

What’s next for felon voting rights at the Iowa Legislature?

The Senate has yet to schedule a hearing on the constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said Monday on IPR’s River to River that he supports the Senate’s felon voting restrictions bill.

He said House Republicans, though they passed the constitutional amendment for voting rights restoration last year, knew they would have to come back and further define the completion of a sentence.

“So this legislation that the Senate is moving actually addresses a number of the concerns that were expressed in my [House Republican] caucus last year,” Holt said.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said the Senate bill sets the state up for a legal challenge.

“I’m a little concerned about the constitutionality about some of those restrictions,” Wolfe said. “In its current form, I couldn’t vote for it.”

Wolfe mentioned a recent federal court decision that struck down Florida’s requirement to pay fines, fees and restitution as unconstitutional.

A handful of states have some kind of payment requirement for restoration of felon voting rights. Some opponents of these policies refer to them as poll taxes, which are illegal under federal law.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter