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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Iowa

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

Last Updated: August 5, 2020
Published: November 7, 2018

On August 5, 2020, Repub­lican Gov. Kim Reyn­olds issued an exec­ut­ive order ending Iowa’s policy of perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment for those with felony convic­tions. Gov. Reyn­old­s’s order auto­mat­ic­ally and prospect­ively restores voting rights to most Iowans who have completed their terms of incar­cer­a­tion, proba­tion, parole, or special sentence – which is estim­ated to be tens of thou­sands of citizens.

Disen­fran­chise­ment in Iowa

Gov. Reyn­olds’ exec­ut­ive order auto­mat­ic­ally and prospect­ively restores voting rights to Iowans with past felony convic­tions, except indi­vidu­als convicted of felony homicide offenses, once they have completed their terms of incar­cer­a­tion, proba­tion, parole, or special sentence.

Until Gov. Reyn­olds’ action, Iowa was the only state in the coun­try that perman­ently took voting rights away from citizens with past convic­tions unless the govern­ment approved indi­vidual rights restor­a­tion – a process that will now apply only to people with felony homicide convic­tions. A state-main­tained webpage with inform­a­tion regard­ing Iowa’s rights restor­a­tion process can be accessed here.

Gov. Kim Reyn­olds has urged Iowa lawmakers to amend the state’s consti­tu­tion to put an end to perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment in Iowa.

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.

  • On August 5, 2020, Gov. Reyn­olds issued Exec­ut­ive Order 7 auto­mat­ic­ally and prospect­ively restor­ing the right to vote to Iowans with past convic­tions, except indi­vidu­als convicted of felony homicide offenses, once they have completed their terms of incar­cer­a­tion, proba­tion, parole, or special sentence. With Gov. Reyn­olds’ action, no state in the coun­try has a policy of perman­ent 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.

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. H.J.R. 14 passed the House on March 28, 2019, but failed to advance in the Senate.
  • On Janu­ary 31, 2020, legis­lat­ors intro­duced S.F. 2129, as a condi­tion on the passage of H.J.R. 14, which would condi­tion the restor­a­tion of voting rights on the repay­ment of any outstand­ing pecu­ni­ary damages (i.e., victim 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. S.F. 2129 passed both the House and Senate, and was signed into law by Governor Reyn­olds on June 4, 2020. It will not go into effect because the legis­lature failed to advance H.J.R. 14 to amend Iowa’s consti­tu­tion.

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 Derek Paul­hus, at paul­hus­d@bren­