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Governor Acts To Restore Voting Rights To Iowans With Felony Convictions

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order Wednesday restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of Iowans with felony convictions ahead of the November election.

Iowa was the only state that still permanently disenfranchised all felons unless they appealed directly to the governor.

Reynolds' order restores voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, including probation, parole and special sentences that are associated with sex offenses. Reynolds' order does not require payment of victim restitution or any other fines or fees as a condition of being able to vote, a point of contention in Florida that has been caught up in court.

The order doesn't automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of murder, manslaughter, and other felony offenses included in Iowa's homicide code. Iowans who don't get their voting rights automatically restored upon completing their sentence can apply to the governor for individual rights restoration.

Estimates put the number of Iowans disenfranchised because of a felony conviction between 50,000 and 60,000. The policy has had a racially disparate impact, banning nearly 1 in 10 Black Iowans of voting age from voting, according to a 2016 estimate from The Sentencing Project.

Des Moines Black Lives Matter activists have been pressuring Reynolds to restore felon voting rights since early June, protesting at the capitol, outside her house and meeting with her twice to discuss the issue.

Reynolds confirmed in mid-June she would sign an executive order restoring felon voting rights before the November election.

That promise came shortly after Republicans in the Iowa Senate again declined to pass Reynolds' proposed constitutional amendment.

Reynolds said at the time she was considering an executive order even before the legislative session ended without progress on the constitutional amendment.

"Even if we were able to get that done, because of the timeline that it takes to actually pass two sessions and go to a vote of the people, I knew that we had a really important election coming up and so that was part of the discussion," Reynolds said.

Reynolds isn't the first Iowa governor to restore voting rights with an executive order.

In 2005, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to felons, but in 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, while Reynolds was his lieutenant governor, reversed the order, requiring Iowans who completed their sentence after that date to appeal directly to the governor to be able to vote.

Reynolds has said that reversal is why she will continue pushing for a more permanent solution in the form of a constitutional amendment.

Copyright 2020 Iowa Public Radio

Katarina Sostaric is an Iowa City based reporter covering Eastern Iowa for Iowa Public Radio.