Iowa, now the lone state with a felon voting ban, automates part of the restoration process
Governor Kim Reynolds gives remarks during the 7th annual Iowa summit on justice and disparities. Des Moines Register
Felons leaving Iowa prisons or completing their parole will now have an easier time applying to regain their voting rights.
Each felon in Iowa must apply individually to the governor's office to have their voting rights restored. Iowa simplified the process Thursday, when the Iowa Department of Corrections rolled out a system that auto-completes 12 of the 14 questions on the voting rights restoration application, Director Beth Skinner said.
An officer will now work with each inmate being discharged from the correctional system to complete the last two questions, Skinner said.
Iowa and Kentucky had the most restrictive felon-voting bans in the country until Thursday, when Kentucky's Democratic governor signed an executive order ending that state's permanent voting ban for most felons.
Iowa officials have long debated making changes to the voting ban. A former Democratic governor lifted the ban by executive order, only to be reversed by a former Republican governor. The current governor, Republican Kim Reynolds, tried but failed earlier this year to get the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment to permanently end the ban.
The Department of Corrections' new system will make it easier for about 5,000 people each year to apply for the restoration of their voting rights when discharging their sentences. Had the system been in place in the past fiscal year, 4,692 people would have left prison or parole with a completed form, spokesperson Cord Overton said.
"It’s going to be all auto-populated for them so they don’t have to go back and look for old offenses and dates," Skinner told reporters Wednesday in Des Moines. "The only thing they’ll have to pull from is court fines and what they owe and if they had a deferment ... but other than that, it’s going to become easy so they don’t have to go back and dig up that information."
The felons are still responsible for sending the completed application forms to the Iowa governor's office once they leave prison, Skinner said.
Skinner said she will also talk with other corrections officials to determine whether the state can also begin mailing the mostly completed form to felons who are already out of the prison system, along with instructions for how to finish filling it out.
Skinner's announcement came during a meeting of a committee that Reynolds created this fall to examine ways to reduce recidivism and bias in the criminal justice system.
The group on Wednesday approved a set of recommendations for Reynolds to consider, including pushing for a law that would prohibit state agencies and local governments from asking about a job applicant's criminal history until later in the job application process.
“Iowans recognize the power of redemption and second chances, and criminal justice reform continues to be a key priority for my administration,” the governor said in a news release Thursday.
Iowa has faced criticism — and the threat of a legal challenge — for its blanket prohibition on felons voting without having their rights restored by the governor. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear's executive order Thursday restored the voting rights of more than 140,000 people convicted of nonviolent felonies.
Reynolds has ruled out signing a similar executive order, but she said amending the state's constitution to remove the blanket ban would be a better, more permanent solution. The proposal failed in the Iowa Legislature this year, and the process of amending the state constitution takes years.
Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and a member of the governor's recidivism committee, said her group continues to push for Reynolds to sign an executive order immediately restoring voting rights to felons. But Andrews praised the automated application process that Skinner announced Wednesday.
"We know the governor will continue to press for the constitutional amendment," Andrews said. "In the meantime, I think, in lieu of an executive order, this course of action is probably the best we could probably expect, so really, really, really excited about it. I think this is a win."
Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who chairs the governor's committee on criminal justice issues, praised the group for its recommendations Wednesday and defended Reynolds' approach to the felon voting issue.
"She’s advocated for a constitutional amendment, which will make it a permanent fix and, I believe, that’s exactly the right direction to go," he said.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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