As her proposal to expand voting rights for convicted felons moves through the legislative channels, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds says she wants to improve the existing restitution pathway by streamlining an application process she describes as “overwhelming” and “intimidating.”
On applications for executive clemency, felons are asked to complete a three-page form, pay for a background check and submit financial statements to restore their voting rights. Reynolds said Thursday she and her staff want to remove some of those requirements and make the application one page. She also wants to takes steps to ensure felons receive application materials at correctional facilities, something she says “is not always happening now.”
“I’m really happy with what my team has put together,” Reynolds said Thursday during a meeting with the Quad-City Times editorial board. “It’s a really good place to start.”
At issue is a state law that automatically takes away the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony and requires action by the governor to restore them, a policy regarded as one of the toughest in the country. Only Kentucky shares a permanent ban on felon voting without clemency action by the governor, and 38 states automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The governor’s criticism of the existing restitution process marks a departure from her predecessor and political mentor, former Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad, who reinstated the policy after it had been struck down previously, and defended the application process when questions of its fairness last arose.
Earlier this week, Reynolds introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow felons to have their rights restored upon discharge of a criminal sentence, but passage carries a high bar. It would have to be approved in the House and Senate in consecutive, separately elected legislative sessions before going to Iowa voters for ratification.
Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks have called on Reynolds to restore rights for felons immediately by executive order, an idea Reynolds did not rule out entirely on Thursday. The governor has said she does not want the voting rights of felons to be left to the whims of whoever is governor of the state at a given time, saying she is solely focused on the constitutional amendment route “right now.”
The governor’s constitutional amendment has drawn support from an array of interest groups and on its face appears to hold bipartisan support. Some supporting groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Leader Foundation.
Still, many specifics need to be ironed out as the governor’s proposal moves forward. State lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed willingness to discuss the reforms, but some potential sticking points have already begun to take form along partisan lines.
Conflicting ideas presented so far include proposals to make felons pay restitution fees before getting their rights restored, a move others say could delay by years the restoration of voting rights for the poorest felons. On Thursday in Des Moines, a three-person panel of House lawmakers unanimously advanced the legislation to receive a full committee hearing.
Reynolds’ Thursday visit to the Quad-Cities was the first since she won election to a full four-year term in November. She also made a stop late morning stop at area technology company Redstone Content Solutions, where she spoke with local business and higher education leaders about workforce development and apprenticeship programs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.