DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday signaled her willingness to sign legislation that would require felons to fully pay any court-ordered debts to victims before having their voting rights restored.
Reynolds has been advocating for an amendment to the state constitution that would automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. Iowa is the only state that requires felons to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored.
Some state lawmakers have expressed support for Reynolds’ proposal, but Republicans in the Iowa Senate have insisted any automatic restoration must include restitution requirements.
Legislation proposed in the Senate would define that restitution: before having their voting rights restored, felons would be required to complete their sentence — including probation and parole — and pay all damages to victims or their families.
Roughly one-fourth of felony convictions were assessed restitution over the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years in Iowa. The average amount of restitution assessed in both years was more than $11,000, although those averages include high-dollar fines for prisoners who are serving life sentences and thus would not be eligible for automatic voting rights restoration.
The Senate proposal does not require felons to be fully paid on court fees and fines.
The Iowa Senate planned to debate the restitution proposal later Tuesday.
Reynolds has said she does not want any changes to make the process harder than it already is. Although felons must apply to the governor to have their voting rights restored, they are required only to show they are making progress toward having their court-ordered debts fully paid. The Senate proposal requires those debts to be fully paid.
Reynolds on Tuesday told reporters she is willing to approve the Senate proposal in the spirit of compromise in order to ensure the passage of the constitutional amendment.
“I’ve said before that I didn’t want to make it more complicated. They really tied the restitution to victims, and we should never ever lose sight of victims,” Reynolds said. “Compromise is part of how we get things done. When you show no willingness to compromise, then nothing ever happens. So we’ll continue to work with them and see what happens. …
“That’s what it takes to get things to done. We have to be willing to take a look and listen at what both sides are saying.”
The restitution requirements would be placed under state law, while the voting rights restoration is covered by a proposed constitutional amendment.
An amendment to the state constitution must be approved during two sessions of the Iowa Legislature separated by an election, then by a statewide public vote.
A federal appeals court this past month upheld a lower court ruling that restitution requirements passed in Florida and similar to Iowa’s were unconstitutional.
“(Iowa state lawmakers) are taking that into consideration as they move it through the legislative process,” Reynolds said. “I think they really didn’t want to go through what Florida did. So (they’re) trying to be more prescriptive on the front end, and then we’ll see.”
Previous Iowa governors changed felon voting rights via executive order. Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, in 2005, issued an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, shortly after being elected in 2010, erased Vilsack’s order, creating the current process.
Reynolds was Branstad’s lieutenant governor and replaced him in 2017 when he became U.S. ambassador to China.
Reynolds has said she advocates for the constitutional amendment because it is more difficult to alter than an executive order.
Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said he would like to see Reynolds take executive action, but in that absence offered tepid support for the Senate Republicans’ restitution proposal.
“Is this the bill that I would have drafted? No, but it certainly seems to be the only way we’re going to get this moving,” Boulton said. “So I think we’re going to see concerns raised by Democrats in the debate, but what’s the most important thing is to make sure people who are being denied the right to vote are getting the right to vote. And if it helps more than a few, that’s the right approach.”