Three months shy of the 2020 presidential election, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order today restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of Iowans with felony records.
Iowa was the last state in the U.S. with a lifetime voting ban for anyone with a felony record.
"Quite simply, when someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crimes, they should have their right to vote restored, automatically, plain and simple," Reynolds said.
A 2016 report by the Sentencing Project found that there were roughly 52,000 Iowans barred for life from voting because of a felony record. At the time of the report, Iowa was one of four states with lifetime felony disenfranchisement. However, last December Kentucky restored voting rights to an estimated 140,000 residents. The last two Virginia governors have issued executive orders similar to Reynolds', and Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 restoring voting rights to those with felony records who completed the terms of their sentences.
"Disenfranchising people with criminal convictions is a vestige of Jim Crow laws," said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel with the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, in a statement. "As of today, this shameful policy has no place in the United States."
Civil liberties groups have been whittling away at felony disenfranchisement laws for decades, but there's been an added urgency to those efforts as the 2020 election draws closer. A number of civil liberties groups are currently fighting a protracted legal battle with the state of Florida over felon voting rights that could impact an estimated 775,000 residents in the crucial swing state.
The language of Florida's constitutional amendment didn't specify whether felony offenders had to pay off their court fines and fees to regain voting eligibility. Florida Republicans passed legislation making the restoration of voting rights contingent on paying off fines and fees. However, Democrats and civil liberties groups say that amounts to a poll tax.
A federal judge ruled in May agreed with them, in part, and ruled that Florida's law was unconstitutionally discriminatory because it blocked those who couldn't afford to pay their fines from voting. However, that ruling is temporarily stayed pending a hearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals later this month.
Notably, Reynolds' order does not make paying fines and fees a requirement for regaining voting eligibility. It does, however, exclude those convicted of homicide and manslaughter offenses, as well as those still completing probation or parole.
Civil liberties groups and local activists have been pressing Reynolds on the issue for months. Their ultimate goal is an amendment to the state constitution to keep a future governor from reversing the order.
That's exactly what happened the last time Iowa governor restored the right to vote. In 2005, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order re-enfranchising all state residents who had completed their sentences. His successor, Gov Terry Branstad, reversed that executive order in 2011.
"While we're delighted that immediately so many Iowans are eligible to register and vote, it's important that we continue to pursue a more permanent fix to the problem of felony disenfranchisement in our state," the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.