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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 Connie Wu at