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Iowa Senate Fails To Pass Constitutional Amendment To Restore Felon Voting Rights

iowa senate
John Pemble
Iowa Public Radio
After the Senate failed for the second straight year to vote on a felon voting rights amendment, it's likely that 2024 is the earliest the issue could come before Iowa voters.

The Iowa Senate finished its work for the year Sunday afternoon without advancing a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights, setting the effort back at least two years.

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

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said the constitutional amendment to permanently change that was one of her top priorities for the past two legislative sessions. But Senate Republicans failed to vote on the measure both years, even after Reynolds signed into law a bill they backed to require Iowans with felony convictions to pay victim restitution in full before automatically having their voting rights restored.

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said Sunday that last week he learned from Reynolds’ office that she intends to pursue an executive order to immediately restore felon voting rights.

“From a senate standpoint…to go down an executive order process really kind of renders the constitutional process moot,” Dawson said. “So that was the decision and pivot point in the end on this.”

But Dawson also said a majority of Senate Republicans were already not going to support the proposed constitutional amendment in its current form, which says people with felony convictions can get their voting rights automatically restored when they complete their sentence.

He said they wanted the constitutional amendment language to include some restrictions that were already passed as part of a separate bill.

“The Senate’s concern was that you could pass that statutorily, but that could be removed, just like that,” Dawson said. “The biggest discussion point that we were focusing on was, how do we actually elevate some of these issues to a constitutional level, not just a statutory [level] where it could be the whim of any legislature to change that.”

If the Senate had passed the constitutional amendment this year, the legislature would have had to vote on it again in one of the next two years before it could go on the ballot for a vote of the people in 2022.

With this setback, it’s likely that 2024 could be the earliest a felon voting rights constitutional amendment would go on the ballot.

In a statement, the ACLU of Iowa said it will continue to push for a constitutional amendment.

“Iowa’s disenfranchisement law has been especially devastating to Black communities across Iowa, where one in ten Black adults cannot vote because of a felony conviction,” the statement reads. This means entire communities have a reduced voice in our government and it perpetuates the problems of a deeply flawed criminal justice system.”

On Friday, Black Lives Matter activists met with Reynolds. They said she committed to drafting language for an executive order to restore felon voting rights immediately. An executive order is not necessarily permanent and could be reversed by a future governor, as has previously happened in Iowa.

Reynolds’ spokesperson did not comment on the Senate not passing the constitutional amendment or on the BLM group’s account of their meeting.

Black Lives Matter activists also rallied outside of the governor’s mansion Saturday night, calling for an end to felon disenfranchisement in Iowa.

Des Moines BLM organizer Matthew Bruce mentioned to protesters that Senate Republicans might hold up the constitutional amendment.

“We’re here to show them, they can fight against the tide all they want,” Bruce said. “We ain’t moving.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter