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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Iowa

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

Published: November 7, 2018

Iowa is one of only two states – alongside Kentucky – 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.

Rights Restoration Process

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 or not. A state-maintained webpage with information regarding Iowa’s rights restoration process can be accessed here.

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 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 Branstad rescinded Executive Order 42, former Gov.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 Makeda Yohannes, at