A GOP Governor and BLM Activists Agreed on Restoring Voting Rights to Felons. Will It Last?

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On August 5, two months after protests against racial injustice had kicked off around the country, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds held a signing ceremony for a new executive order—one that would grant people who had been incarcerated for a felony the right to vote upon completing their sentences.

“Quite simply, when someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crimes,” Reynolds said, speaking in front of masked community leaders in her office at the state capitol, “they should have their right to vote restored, automatically, plain and simple.”

In one sense, it was a huge win for criminal justice advocates: Up to that point, Iowa was the only state that permanently barred people convicted of any kind of felony from voting unless they appealed to the governor—even as dozens of other states across the country have expanded voting rights for felons over the past quarter-century. Now, a mostly red state and a Donald Trump-aligned Republican governor had moved to reenfranchise tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated Iowans.

But in reality, the story is more complicated, and the future of felon voting rights in Iowa remains uncertain—offering a lesson in the challenges of reform and the limits of ushering in change through the quick fix of executive action.

For more than a decade, lawyers, advocacy groups and activists had been pressing the state government to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated Iowans. Reynolds’ Republican predecessor, Terry Branstad, resisted those efforts. Then, Reynolds, who has her own personal story of redemption after two DUIs decades ago, announced in 2019 that she would support extending voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence by amending the state constitution. The question was whether the Legislature, controlled by her own party, would follow, and how long it would take.

After George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May, a new, more ad hoc group of Iowa activists saw a window of opportunity. Through daily protests in the state capitol over several days, the group—first called Des Moines Black Lives Matter, then the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement—pressured Reynolds and the Legislature, at a time when criminal justice was in the national spotlight.

“We had been emailing [Reynolds’] office, calling her office, and we were just getting the runaround,” Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the group, said in an interview. “So, we protested at the capitol, at her office, outside of her office for hours on end, yelling, chanting. Anytime the door was open, we would be loud, making sure that Kim Reynolds was in there hearing us.”

On June 12, Reynolds—whose spokesperson declined multiple requests for comment for this article—invited the group to her office, alongside other local voting rights advocates and two Democratic state lawmakers. That day, she was set to sign a bipartisan police accountability law. Now, the activists were presenting her with a list of additional demands, with the restoration of voting rights at the top. “I’m here to listen,” Reynolds told the group, according to a recording of the meeting released by Des Moines Black Liberation Movement.

The organizers wanted her to move faster than the amendment process, which would at least take two legislative sessions to play out, and instead to sign an executive order. The presidential election was only a few months away, and they hoped felons, who in Iowa are disproportionately Black, would be able to vote. “For some of us, it’s an election that dictates what the rest of our lives will look like,” Iowa Rep. RasTafari Smith, one of the lawmakers in attendance, says. “Our people need to vote,” Cavil told the governor.

During the meeting, Reynolds stood by her support for the slower process, but the protesters didn’t let up. By June 16, she relented and agreed to sign the executive order, saying she would continue to work with the Legislature to push for a constitutional amendment in the longer term.

More than 3,000 released felons voted in the 2020 general election as a result of the executive order. But now both Reynolds and the activists are wrestling with the implications of the quick, dramatic change. The Black Liberation Movement organizers weren’t entirely satisfied, saying Iowa’s government didn’t do enough to help register reenfranchised citizens ahead of the election. They also find the order too restrictive: It excludes the most violent offenders and requires them to complete probation and parole before being able to vote.

Reynolds, for her part, now needs to restart the process of pushing for an amendment. But with the coronavirus pandemic still raging and the presidential election in hindsight, the state’s legislative leadership has signaled that the amendment has become less urgent. And given how long the process takes, time might not be on Reynolds’ side: She is up for reelection in 2022.

The next governor can just as easily reverse course, leaving thousands of convicted Iowans seemingly stuck on a seesaw, with their right to vote at stake.

After the 2010 Census, the Prison Policy Initiative released a study finding that Black Iowans were incarcerated at a rate 10 times higher than white Iowans, and Native Americans at a rate seven times higher. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, 25 percent of the state’s prison population is Black, while Iowa’s overall population is about 4 percent Black. Before Reynolds’ executive order, one out of every 10 Black people in the state didn’t have the right to vote, according to the Sentencing Project.

“Iowa has traditionally been in the top three [states] in terms of the worst record for incarcerating the percentage of African Americans in a state compared to the population,” says Mark Bennett, a retired U.S. District Court judge and director of the Institute for Justice Reform and Innovation at Drake University.

Today, some three dozen states restore voting rights automatically upon release or upon completion of probation or parole, while Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia never strip those rights in the first place. In Iowa, felony disenfranchisement was inscribed into state’s constitution before the Civil War: Article II, Section 5 permanently disenfranchises any person “convicted of any infamous crime,” which the Iowa Supreme Court has interpreted to mean any felony.

On Independence Day 2005, Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat now nominated to be Joe Biden’s Agriculture secretary, signed an executive order restoring voting rights to people who had completed their sentences, probation, parole and supervised release, granting tens of thousands of citizens the right to vote. But six years later, the state’s Republican governor, Branstad, reversed the order upon entering office.

A few years after that, activists began to fight back, according to Daniel Zeno, then-policy and advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. In 2014, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of an Iowa woman named Kelli Jo Griffin who had lost her right to vote because of a nonviolent drug conviction. Two years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that Griffin’s disenfranchisement was permitted under the state constitution. About 20 organizations across the state—including the ACLU of Iowa, the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and the League of Women Voters—formed a coalition and realized, in Zeno’s words, “We gotta change the Iowa constitution.’”

What happened next encouraged even the most jaded activists. In early 2017, Branstad stepped down to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China. He had groomed his lieutenant governor, Reynolds, to assume leadership of the state, which she did in May; she was elected to the seat the next year. A former state senator from St. Charles, Iowa, Reynolds had a reputation as a hard-working conservative with a can-do attitude. Despite having worked closely with Branstad for years, she sought to carve out her own path—including on criminal justice.

In January 2019, Reynolds announced in her first Condition of the State address as elected governor that she was interested in permanently removing the state’s felon voting ban through a constitutional amendment. She told the story of a man in Waukee whose individual right to vote she had restored as governor. “I don’t think this man and others like him who have completed their sentences should have to wait for my say or any future governor’s say before they get that dignity back,” she said in the address. Voting rights restoration became one of Reynolds’ top issues.

The national Republican Party at the time was coming around to criminal justice reform, with Trump signing the First Step Act in December 2018. But the impetus for Reynolds was partly personal. Early in her stint as a public servant, she had been charged with DUIs, in 1999 and 2000. Her second charge served as a turning point: She’s been sober since. In the run-up to the Condition of the State address, she told reporters that she herself had been “a recipient of second chances” and, “I believe that people make mistakes and there’s opportunities to change, and that needs to be recognized.”

In March 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced House Joint Resolution 14 (HJR 14), which proposed a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights. For the state constitution to be amended, the bill would have to pass the state House and Senate—twice, over successive legislative sessions—before being put to Iowa voters as a ballot measure. At the outset, it seemed like the amendment had a chance.

Advocates began reaching out to state lawmakers to encourage them to pass the bill. “It was one of the biggest advocacy efforts we have ever done,” says Myrna Loehrlein, chair of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice committee of the League of Women Voters. In addition to lobbying, the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa worked on “engaging people, getting everyday Iowans to use their voices and talk with legislators, too,” according to Connie Ryan, the group’s executive director.

On March 28, HJR 14 passed the House by a vote of 95 to 2. House Republicans had voted overwhelmingly for the bill believing the state Senate would refine the legislation so that only felons who met certain criteria would be eligible to vote. On April 4, the upper chamber convened to consider the proposal. Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican from Ottumwa (who has since been elected to Congress), gave a speech in favor of the amendment, telling the story of her late brother, who had been convicted of a felony. “There are good people out there who do bad things—misjudgments, make mistakes—when they are younger,” she said.

But other Republicans thought the bill needed work. “This language, I believe, was not clear enough, and there was not any parameters in regards to what those voting rights were,” Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, told reporters. As a result, the proposal sat in limbo until the next legislative session. The following February, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to modify the bill so that the amendment would not apply to felons who had committed violent crimes like murder and manslaughter, and all returning citizens who owe restitution to victims would have to pay off those debts beforehand. Reynolds, eager to move forward, signed onto attaching the modification to the amendment.

This past June, after Des Moines BLM met with Reynolds, the group announced that she was open to an executive order. Soon after, Senate Republicans backed away from the proposed constitutional amendment. “Over the last couple days, it appeared the governor intended to sign an executive order regarding felon voting rights,” Senator Dan Dawson, a Republican from Council Bluffs, said in a statement. “It was the opinion of a number of my colleagues that an executive order eliminated the need for a constitutional amendment.”

On June 14, the 2020 legislative session ended with HJR 14 quietly dying on the floor. The next step for advocates became clear: “In the meantime,” the ACLU of Iowa said in a statement, “the Governor can restore the eligibility to vote for thousands of Iowans today, and moving forward, with an executive order.”

After their meetings with the governor, Des Moines BLM spent the summer showing up at events across the state to urge her to sign the order. (Cavil even got hit by one of the governor’s SUVs at an event in Ackley; he was not injured.) Zeno of the ACLU credits the organizers with providing the extra push toward executive action. “The protests in Iowa were absolutely, 100 percent, without question helpful in getting us to where we are now,” he says.

During the signing, Reynolds surrounded herself with local community leaders and representatives from the NAACP, which also pushed for felon voting rights. But Des Moines BLM wasn’t notified, Cavil says.

In the end, the executive order isn’t exactly what advocates expected or hoped for, and in fact resembles the version of the constitutional amendment that Senate Republicans were pushing: It excludes those on parole, probation or “other supervised release,” and those convicted of homicide and related crimes—though it does not require payment of restitution. (Vilsack’s executive order had not excluded violent offenders.)

A version of this debate has been a sticking point in Florida, where, in 2018, the state voted through a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences—before the state Legislature stripped those rights away unless felons paid off court fines and fees. As a result, nearly 800,000 Floridians who might have voted in 2020 were ineligible.

In Iowa, after the signing of the executive order, Des Moines BLM began focusing on registering newly reenfranchised citizens to vote. But it wasn’t until the week before the election that Rep. Smith acquired a list of nearly 40,000 names of newly eligible voters and their counties, after his office had contacted the Iowa Department of Corrections in the hopes of helping activists register voters. “There was no emphasis on informing the public about this,” Smith says.

“It just had their names,” Cavil adds. “It didn’t have their phone numbers, their addresses, their emails, any personal information, no way of contacting any of them.”

The Iowa Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, 4,127 Iowans whose registration was previously canceled because of a felony conviction reregistered to vote after the executive order was signed. Of those citizens, 3,179 voted in the 2020 general election—a fraction of those who were newly eligible.

More fundamentally, Reynolds’ executive order bears the same risk that Vilsack’s did: It easily can be overturned by a successor. Iowa still remains one of the more restrictive states with regard to felony disenfranchisement. And Senate Republicans feel “less urgency” to act on voting rights after the executive order came into effect, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said at a forum with state leaders last month.

Activists say they will continue to push for a constitutional amendment. The executive order, they believe, was just a Band-Aid over a deep wound.

“The executive order is not the final word,” Zeno says. “We believe in permanent solutions, something that permanently writes this law, and something that doesn’t have the kinds of exclusions that this order has.”

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