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.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
With less than three months to go before the November election, tens of thousands of Iowans with felony convictions can now register to vote. Iowa was the last state to permanently restrict voting rights for everyone with a felony conviction. Today Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order to change that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KIM REYNOLDS: This is a cause on which so many Iowans have worked on for years. It boils down to our fundamental belief in redemption and second chances.
SHAPIRO: Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio was there when the order was signed, and she joins us now.
KATARINA SOSTARIC, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What prompted the governor to do this today?
SOSTARIC: Gov. Reynolds has been pushing for this since early 2019. She has a couple of drinking and driving convictions on her record and has always said that second chances for people are important to her. And so she spent the past two years advocating for a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights.
But she faced resistance from some of the Republicans in the legislature who have the majority. And when they failed to pass her constitutional amendment and at the same time Des Moines Black Lives Matter activists were pressuring Reynolds to restore these voting rights since early June - they've been protesting at the Capitol, outside of her house and have met with her a few times - all those things kind of came together. And the governor, with the election coming up, said that it was time to act.
SHAPIRO: And so what are the details here? Does it go into effect immediately? I mean, who does it apply to?
SOSTARIC: Yes. It takes effect immediately. It restores voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, including probation and parole. And this could impact an estimated 50- to 60,000 Iowans who are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Also nearly 1 in 10 Black Iowans are prohibited from voting because of this, so that'll change.
One important distinction from some other states is that it doesn't require payment of victim restitution or any other fines or fees as a condition of being able to vote. That's been something we've been hearing about from Florida where Republicans have been pushing for people to pay all those fines and fees. And Iowa's voting rights restoration also does not apply to people convicted of murder and manslaughter. Those people would have to still apply individually to the governor to get their rights restored.
SHAPIRO: Now, you mentioned that some Iowa Republicans, members of the governor's own party, had been resisting this. So what's the reaction to the executive order been so far?
SOSTARIC: I haven't heard much from those specific Republicans at this point. There were other Republicans who were supportive and have thanked the governor for taking this step. Voting rights advocates, the local leaders of the NAACP and the ACLU have said it's just a very important and historic day for both the state and the country. They think it will give enough time for many of these newly eligible voters to register to vote and participate in the election in November.
And then the local Black Lives Matter organizers see themselves as having been a big part of getting this done. But they're upset that they weren't included in the signing ceremony, don't feel like they've gotten credit. And they also object to the exclusion of certain crimes and to the requirement that people have to complete their probation or parole before getting the right to vote. And Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, who was kind of an instrumental part of this as well, he's a member of the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus, says that more needs to be done to fight the systemic racism that's behind such policies.
AKO ABDUL-SAMAD: And if Black lives did matter, this wouldn't been such a hurrah today. This would've been something that was already automatic.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly - any chance this will be challenged in court before November, as so many other similar steps in other states have been?
SOSTARIC: That doesn't seem likely right now, but the governor says that she'll keep pushing for a constitutional amendment as a permanent fix because, at this point, any future governor could change what she's done.
SHAPIRO: That is Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio.
Thanks a lot.
SOSTARIC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.