Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) on Tuesday called for a constitutional amendment to do away with the state’s lifetime ban on voting for felons, a significant move that would further shrink the small group of states that continue to implement a policy critics say is antiquated and discriminatory.
Roughly 52,000 people can’t vote in Iowa because of a felony conviction, according to a 2016 estimate by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit. The Sentencing Project also estimated that nearly 1 in every 10 African-Americans in the state were disenfranchised. Nationally, an estimated 4.7 million people are estimated to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
Reynolds’ call comes amid increased scrutiny on felon disenfranchisement after Florida passed a constitutional amendment in November to do away with its lifetime felon voting ban. That change could affect up to 1.4 million people.
Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia are the only three states in the country where state constitutions permanently strip people convicted of felonies of their right to vote unless the governor chooses to restore that right. But in Virginia, the last two governors have moved aggressively to restore voting rights to former felons, so Iowa and Kentucky now stand alone.
Iowa’s governor can restore voting rights to former felons on an individual basis, and Reynolds has done that for 88 people since taking office in 2017. In 2011, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) rescinded an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to people who completed their felony sentences.
In her annual Condition of the State address on Tuesday, Reynolds said the governor shouldn’t have sole discretion in restoring voting rights.
“I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” she said. Those who complete their sentences shouldn’t “have to wait for my say or any future governor’s say before they get that dignity back,” she added.
“Our founders gave us a process to amend the constitution, should the passage of time change our view. Let’s begin that process now. I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption; let’s put this issue in their hands.”
I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption; let’s put this issue in their hands. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R)
Reynolds’ remarks set her apart from several other Republicans across the country. In Florida, former Gov. Rick Scott (R) made it much more difficult for felons to apply and get their rights back after he took office. In 2015, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) rescinded an executive order from his Democratic predecessor automatically restoring voting rights to some former felons. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor in 2002 that voting was a privilege and people with felony convictions shouldn’t vote because they would dilute the votes of law-abiding citizens.
Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer (R) neither endorsed nor rejected Reynolds’ proposal.
“We are going to take a thoughtful look at what the Governor is proposing. This is a new topic that warrants discussion and we will let the committee do its work,” she said in a statement. “We have to remember that there are victims involved in many of these crimes. It is important that restitution is a part of the discussion as we consider this topic.”
Mark Stringer, the executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, praised Reynolds’ comments on Tuesday.
“Denying Iowans the right to vote does nothing to keep our communities safer or make our democracy stronger. In fact, it does the opposite. It prevents thousands of Iowans from successfully reintegrating into society and becoming active, invested participants in our communities and our state,” Stringer said in a statement.
Reynolds, who battled alcohol addiction and was arrested in 1999 and 2000 for drunk driving, recently told reporters she believed in the power of second chances.
“I believe that people make mistakes and there’s opportunities to change, and that needs to be recognized. So it’s something that I’m passionate about,” she said, the Des Moines Register reported.
To amend Iowa’s constitution, lawmakers must pass the proposed amendment in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before sending it to voters for approval.
This story has been updated with comment from Upmeyer.