Progress on Voting Rights Restoration in Iowa?

It’s one of the last two states to permanently ban returning citizens from voting. But the governor suggested she may be open to changing that.

November 21, 2018

Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa suggested this week that she may be open to automatically restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions, after a legislative advisory board recommended the move.

Doing so could affect at least 52,000 disenfranchised Iowans – about 2 percent of the state’s population – including nearly 7,000 African-Americans, who are disproportionately incarcerated in the state, according to 2016 data from the Sentencing Project.

Iowa is now one of two remaining states, along with Kentucky, that permanently disenfranchises returning citizens unless the governor approves their individual appeals. Earlier this month, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that will restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million residents with a past criminal conviction.

Iowa’s seesawing voting policy

Iowa’s voting policy has seesawed in the last several years. The state generally banned people with past criminal convictions from voting. In 2005, after an advocacy effort by the Brennan Center and others, then-governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, issued an executive order that automatically restored voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. But that order was reversed in 2011 by Vilsack's Republican successor, Terry Branstad, who mandated a lengthy application process for former felons, with decisions at the discretion of the governor. Branstad streamlined the application process in 2016. But a low number of returning citizens in Iowa – 88 since Reynolds, a Republican, became governor in early 2017 – have actually seen their voting rights restored.

Later in 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled to uphold the state’s voting ban, saying it didn't violate the state's constitution. The plaintiff in the challenge to the ban, Kelli Griffin, had been charged with perjury connected to illegal voting in 2013 after attempting to vote. She had completed five years of probation for a drug-related crime and had been eligible to vote under Vilsack’s executive order. But unbeknownst to her, the reversal of that order had also reversed her eligibility.

A potential step forward for democracy in Iowa

In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to keep Iowans out of the voting booth. But as Reynolds considers her criminal justice reform agenda, her potential willingness to restore voting rights to returning citizens is an encouraging sign. The move would mark an important step for democracy in Iowa.

(Image: Scott Olson/Getty)