Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a press conference at the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday signed SF 2348, a bill that defines what it means for a felon to “discharge their sentence” should a constitutional amendment automatically restoring felon voting rights for those who do so.

The bill requires felons to pay their restitution to victims before voting rights are restored.

“By balancing the rights of victims and the importance of redemption, we can move forward with historic change for voting rights in Iowa,” Reynolds said in a released statement. “This legislation allows us to implement our proposed constitutional amendment restoring the voting rights of Iowans who have completed serving their sentence. The right to vote is the cornerstone of being a part of any society, and I am proud of the broad coalition supporting this amendment.” 

Iowa is the only state in the nation where all convicted felons lose their right to vote unless they apply to the Governor for restoration. In 2019 and again in 2020, Reynolds called for a constitutional amendment to address this issue permanently. 

“We need the Senate to take action approving the amendment. That is the next step in the process so the people of Iowa can vote on this important issue. The amendment passed the House 95 to two, and I look forward to seeing similar bipartisan support in the Senate this month,” she said during her press conference on Thursday.

Reynolds thanked State Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, the chair of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, promised to move the constitutional amendment out of committee.

The Iowa Senate would not take up the constitutional amendment restoring felon voting rights that passed 95 to 2 in the Iowa House last year unless this bill was adopted. The legislature needed to define what it means to discharge one’s sentence. 

On Wednesday, the Iowa House of Representatives passed the bill by a 51 to 45 party-line vote. The Iowa Senate passed the bill on March 3.

The vote was along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of the measure while Democrats opposed it.

Democrats called the requirement a version of a poll tax noting that restitution sometimes amounts to tens of thousands of dollars, a significant hurdle for poor people who, they say, often include brown and black people.

“It’s punishing people because they do not have the financial resources to pay a debt. It’s a poll tax,” State Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said.

“You are knowingly utilizing legislation to guarantee that poor Iowans are disproportionately impacted and shut out from the process to raise their voices. That’s just what it is,” State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, added.

They contrasted the bill’s requirement to protests over police brutality and inequality. 

“It is astounding to me that the major party would choose to move a bill that is so tone-deaf to this moment,” State Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, said.

State Rep. Bobby Kaufman, R-Wilton, who floor managed the bill, said he disagreed with those calling the requirement a “poll tax.” He noted his primary concern is for victims who “come in all color, race, sex creed and religion.” He said that payment is not to a government or corporation. 

“We’re not talking about a late water bill. We’re talking about someone who hurt someone. Someone who potentially killed someone,” he noted.

Also excluded in this bill are those incarcerated under Iowa Code Chapter 707, committed child endangerment that leads to death, or committed election misconduct in the first degree. Those whose voting rights are not automatically restored can still apply to the Governor to restore those rights.

The law will go into effect once the constitutional amendment passes in the Iowa Senate year, passes in both chambers again during the next General Assembly and ratified by Iowans.

Once done, the Iowa Constitution will read: “A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any felony who has not discharged his or her sentence shall not be entitled the privilege of an elector.”

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