Iowa Senate considers ex-felon voting rights bill
On the floor of the Iowa Senate waits Senate File 2203, a bill that would reinstate the voting rights of ex-felons automatically after they finish serving their criminal sentences. Another version of the bill, Senate File 127, has already been killed by the Senate.
"There is a provision in the state constitution that's been interpreted to disqualify felons from voting," Sen. David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan) explained of the current rules in place on ex-felon voting rights. "And a process has been set up subsequently that allowed ex-felons to apply to have their voting rights restored by the governor."
During his term as governor, Tom Vilsack issued an executive order during his term that "rubber stamped" the application process to have voting rights reinstated.
"Vilsack's executive order rubber stamped without giving consideration to whether the individuals paid their restitution," Johnson said.
An executive order from Gov. Terry Branstad nulled all of the applications approved by Vilsack, and returned the process to a case-by-case approval process.
"Senate Republicans are opposed to this bill, what we have is a good practice," Johnson said. "We need to put the responsibility on the convicted to get their voting rights back."
Johnson said he did not believe that the ex-felon voting rights bill would pass in the House if it was passed by the Senate. The Senate is still waiting to see if the bill will come up for debate.
Rep. Megan Hess (R-Spencer) said she agrees with Johnson.
"I don't think the House is even going to take the bill up," she said. "It has a long way to go before it reaches the House floor."
Hess said she likes how the process for restoring voting rights to former felons is set as of now.
"I think that the process is just part of repaying one's debt to society, and the one needs to prove you have repaid your debt," Hess said. "Requiring someone to apply for their rights also gives them the realization of how serious their offense was and how serious voting is."
While local legislators are in agreement about the bill, local reception of the bill has been mixed. Clay County Sheriff Randy Krukow said he was not in favor of the bill.
"I often will get request to write a letter for someone applying to get their voting rights back," Krukow said. "I look at each individual who asks and consider if they have become a good citizen, what have they done since they got out. I wouldn't be in favor of a carte blanche type system.
He added, "Two people may have committed the same crime, but one person may have turned their life around and the other is still committing the same crimes and doing nothing better than before. You should have to prove that you deserve to have those rights reinstated."
Spencer Police Chief Mark Lawson said he had a different perspective on ex-felon voting rights.
"I always questioned why that right was taken away," Lawson said. "You committed a crime. You made a mistake. Then, you do the time. I don't see why your right to say how the government should be run should be taken away. The right to bear arms is a different issue entirely."
Lawson said giving ex-felons the right to vote automatically would be "motivation" for them to readjust to "mainstream society."
"If they give this right back to them, it is probably more of a positive than a negative," he said.
J.P. Greer, a Spencer defense attorney, said he agrees with Lawson on the issue.
"I have a lot of clients, who are ex-felons, who rehabilitated and deserve the right to vote back," Greer said. "When it comes to voting, too few people vote as it is, it's pathetic. Why would we do something that would discourage more people from voting?"