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Iowa governor to propose ending voting ban for people with felony convictions

The state's Republican governor will reportedly propose a constitutional amendment ending the ban Tuesday.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is reportedly set to propose a constitutional amendment ending the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the state. (PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is reportedly set to propose a constitutional amendment ending the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the state. (PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is reportedly set to propose a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions in the state, The Des Moines Register reported Tuesday morning.

Right now, Iowa is one of just two states that permanently bars returning citizens from voting, but Reynolds is set to give her Condition of the State speech Tuesday and will highlight, according to the Register, “the beauty of grace” and second chances.

“Talk with someone who, by their own actions, hit rock bottom but decided to turn their life around,” Reynolds said in prepared remarks shared with the Register ahead of Tuesday’s speech. “Watch their face light up when they tell you about the person who offered them a helping hand…. There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose.”

Currently, the only way returning citizens can have their rights restored in Iowa is to appeal the governor and have their rights individually restored. Since taking office in May of 2017, Reynolds has restored the voting rights of nearly 80 people with felony convictions in the state, but in her speech Tuesday, will address what she believes is a flawed system. “I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” she said in her prepared remarks.

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Reynolds herself is a “recipient of second chances,” she recently told reporters, referencing her struggle with alcohol addiction and two arrests, in 1999 and 2000, for drunk driving.

“I believe that people make mistakes and there’s opportunities to change, and that needs to be recognized. So it’s something that I’m passionate about,” she said.

From 2005 to 2011, Iowa had automatic voting rights restoration for returning citizens, and during that time, 115,000 people were able to register. In 2011, however, former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) — who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to China — ended automatic restoration. According to Restore Votes Iowa, more than 50,000 people with felony convictions are still unable to vote. African Americans in the state are disproportionately affected.

In order to pass a constitutional amendment, lawmakers in Iowa need to approve legislation in two consecutive general assemblies. Voters would then need to approve the measure through a statewide vote.

Reynolds’ proposal Tuesday comes just one week after Amendment 4 was officially implemented in Florida, restoring voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million returning citizens in the state. Neil Volz, the political director for Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) — the group that led the Amendment 4 fight — said Tuesday morning that it was encouraging to see Iowa building on Florida’s momentum.

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“One of the things that we loved about the process of Amendment 4 was allowing people to see that individuals from all walks of life and all political backgrounds support redemption and second chances,” Volz told ThinkProgress. “We were encouraged by the people who came before us, and the idea that we’re serving as an encouragement, it’s just wonderful.”

Iowa will also join Alabama, which restored voting rights to tens of thousands of returning citizens through the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act two years ago, and New Jersey, where the governor has introduced legislation that would allow people on probation or parole to vote, in expanding voting rights to people with criminal convictions.

Should the proposed amendment in Iowa pass, Kentucky would be the last state in the country to permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting.