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Iowa House restarts felon voting rights constitutional amendment
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Iowa House restarts felon voting rights constitutional amendment

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Chawn Yilmaz of Cedar Rapids casts her ballot at an early voting center at 823 Third Street Southwest in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Yilmaz became elegible to vote this year in Iowa after Gov. Kim Reynolds restored the voting rights of roughly 35,000 felons in Iowa who had completed their sentences.

DES MOINES — The Iowa House has restarted the process of amending the Iowa Constitution to restore voting rights for felons who have discharged their sentences.

“I would just say this is my third time so I don’t have a lot to offer that I haven’t said before,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said Thursday at a Judiciary subcommittee on House Study Bill 143.

In fact, most of the comments offered at the subcommittee hearing were very similar to those heard over the past two years since Gov. Kim Reynolds’ called for the amendment in 2019. The House overwhelmingly passed it, but the Senate has yet to take action to put the issue on the ballot.

Before voters get a chance to weigh in, the amendment must be approved by the House and Senate in this two-year General Assembly and again in the 2023-24 session.

One of the biggest barrier to felons successfully re-entering the community is being identified as a felon, said Greg Baker of The Family Leader.

“When someone goes to prison, it becomes a lifelong identifier — once a felon, always a felon,” Baker said. It becomes a second prison. “Voting rights is just one of the many hindrances that is out there for someone to finish their time.”

Denying voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences doesn’t benefit society, said Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity.

“When we look at criminal justice reform pieces, we think, ‘Does this help keep the public safe ... does it reduce recidivism?’” he said. “Continuing to restrict somebody’s voting rights does neither.”

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Putting the restoration of voting rights in the state constitution will take the politics out of the process, said Matt Hinch, representing Secure Democracy. “We think that is a good thing.”

In August 2020, Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of Iowans with felony convictions.

Until then, Iowa was the only state that permanently banned felons from voting unless they appealed directly to the governor to have those rights restored. Out of an estimated 50,000 or more Iowans eligible for voting rights restoration, Reynolds received 809 applications in 2019.

Her executive order applied to felons who have completed their sentences, probation, parole and special sentences for sex offenses. It does not require that payment of restitution, fines and fees be completed.

In an effort to get the Senate to approve the constitutional change, Reynolds last year signed legislation pushed by Republicans that would have required full payment of victim restitution. It also would have withheld voting rights from people convicted of homicide, sexual offenses, child endangerment causing death and election misconduct. Those felons would have to continue to apply to the governor.

HSB 143 has widespread support from the legal community, civil rights groups, faith-based organizations and voting rights groups. No one is registered in opposition. The Iowa Police Chiefs Association is registered as undecided on SSB 1134, the Senate companion bill.

Prospects in the Senate remain uncertain, with what Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, called a “critical mass of Republican senators opposed.”

“It’s been a lightning rod for years,” Wahls said, adding he’s interested in seeing whether the eight freshman GOP senators are more supportive of the constitutional change than others in the caucus.

Judiciary Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he hasn’t discussed SSB 1134 with his committee and doesn’t know what the GOP freshmen think about the proposal.

It has been assigned to a Judiciary subcommittee, though no meeting has been scheduled on it.

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