Iowa's Lawmakers Are On The Cusp Of Expanding Voting Rights In A Huge Way

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Iowa's House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment aimed at restoring the voting rights of former convicted felons. Should the bill pass both the state's Senate and electorate, voting rights in Iowa would be greatly expanded. The amendment is heavily supported by Iowa's Republican governor.

"Today's strong bipartisan vote is a victory for Iowans who deserve a second chance," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement released after Thursday's House vote. "There's a broad coalition of supporters behind this constitutional amendment, and I will continue working with members of the Iowa Senate to move the process forward, allowing Iowans a vote on this important issue."

Under current Iowa state law, anyone convicted of a felony has their voter registration canceled, thereby prohibiting them from voting for the rest of their lives. According to the office of Iowa's secretary of state, however, an individual may apply to the governor's office to have their voting rights restored. The state is one of only two to enforce a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

But should House Joint Resolution 14 pass through the state's Senate and then be ratified by Iowa voters, Iowa's constitution would be amended to define those not entitled to voting as, among other things, "a person convicted of any felony who has not discharged his or her sentence." Convicted felons would thus have their voting rights restored once they have completed their sentences.

Although the measure easily passed through Iowa's House in a 95-2 vote on Thursday, it still faces a number of hurdles. According to The Des Moines Register, the bill must first be moved through the state's Senate Judiciary Committee before a legislative deadline currently scheduled for the end of next week. The bill will then have to pass through Iowa's state Senate, where it reportedly may face more opposition than it did in the House.

Some state legislators have advocated for excluding those who have been convicted of crimes like homicide and sexual offenses from ever having their voting rights restored. Others have expressed a desire to require convicted felons not only serve out their sentences but also pay restitution to victims before being eligible to have their voting rights restored, The Des Moines Register has reported. Opponents to such a requirement, however, have argued that restitution payments would effectively function as a poll tax and could result in lower-income former felons being blocked from ever seeing their voting rights restored.

"I want to make sure that we're not making it stricter than what we already have," Gov. Reynolds said, noting that restitution payments are not currently part of the state's process for restoring former felons' voting rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed support for the resolution's current wording, arguing that restoring former felons' voting rights helps to fully reintegrate them into society. "Denying Iowans the right to vote does nothing to keep our communities safer or make our democracy stronger," Mark Stringer, executive director of ACLU of Iowa, said per The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. "In fact, it does the opposite. It prevents thousands of Iowans from successfully reintegrating into society and becoming active, invested participants in our communities and our state." The ACLU has, however, said it would not support the bill if payment of victim restitution was added as a requirement.

Should the bill make it past both the House and the Senate, it would then be put before Iowa voters for ratification. In February, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found that nearly two-thirds of Iowans approved of restoring voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences.