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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Iowa

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Iowa.

Last Updated: February 10, 2020
Published: November 7, 2018

Iowa is the only state to impose permanent disenfranchisement for all people with felony convictions, unless the government approves individual rights restoration. On June 30, 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the state’s disenfranchisement law in a 4-3 split decision in a case called Griffin v. Pate.

Disenfranchisement in Iowa

Right now, the only way to regain the right to vote is by applying to the Office of the Governor. Under Iowa’s constitution, the Governor has the discretion to restore voting rights. A state-maintained webpage with information regarding Iowa’s rights restoration process can be accessed here.

With the support of Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa lawmakers are advancing legislation to amend the state’s constitution and put an end to permanent disenfranchisement in Iowa.

Legislative Efforts

To amend the Iowa Constitution, both chambers of the legislature must approve the amendment in two successive General Assemblies (two-year legislative sessions). Then, the policy must be ratified by a majority of the electors.

  • On March 11, 2019, legislators introduced H.J.R. 14, a resolution that would amend Iowa’s constitution to restore the right to vote upon completion of sentence. On March 28, 2019, the proposed amendment passed in the House and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It has not yet passed in the Senate.
  • On January 31, 2020, legislators introduced S.F. 2129, which would condition the restoration of voting rights on the repayment of any outstanding restitution. The Brennan Center provided written testimony in opposition to S.F. 2129 when the bill was heard by a Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 10, 2020.

Executive Actions

For the six years between 2005 and 2011, under a policy established through an executive order, Iowa did not permanently disenfranchise its citizens and instead restored voting rights to people who had completed their sentences. In 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad reversed that progress, returning the state to its status as a national outlier on disenfranchisement.

  • In December 2019, the Iowa Department of Corrections implemented a new system meant to simplify the rights restoration application process for people with criminal convictions in their past. The new system auto-completes 12 out of the 14 questions on the voting rights restoration application, and correctional officers now work with each individual being released from prison to complete the remaining questions. In January 2020, Gov. Reynolds then processed hundreds of voting rights restoration application forms in time for the state’s presidential caucuses.
  • In April 2016, Gov. Branstad announced a simplification to the rights restoration application form. However, the state’s rights restoration process remains one of the most onerous in the country with only 17 applications in 2015.
  • On January 14, 2011, shortly after taking office, Gov. Branstad rescinded Executive Order 42, former Gov. Tom Vilsack’s 2005 order restoring voting rights to all Iowans who had completed sentences for felony convictions. With Gov. Branstad’s action, Iowa again returned to imposing permanent disenfranchisement.
  • In January 2011, as Gov. Branstad transitioned into office, the Brennan Center and many others urged him to continue former-Gov. Vilsack’s policy restoring voting rights upon sentence completion. The Des Moines Register published an editorial urging Gov. Branstad to maintain the policy and many groups sent letters – including a coalition of non-partisan and faith-based Iowa organizations, the American Probation and Parole Association, the American Correctional Association, and the American Bar Association.
  • On July 4, 2005, Gov. Vilsack issued Executive Order 42, restoring voting rights to Iowans who had already completed sentences for felony convictions, and providing for ongoing restorations to people completing sentences thereafter. In the nearly six years it was in effect, Gov. Vilsack’s order restored voting rights to an estimated 115,000 citizens.
  • On June 30, 2005, in anticipation of executive action, a county attorney in Iowa launched a court case, Allison v. Vilsack, challenging Gov. Vilsack’s power to issue Executive Order 42. Several months later, in October 2005, the judge upheld Gov. Vilsack’s order.

Brennan Center Materials

Recent Press

Brennan Center Publications

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Iowa, please contact Stuart Baum, at