DES MOINES -- The degrees of support varied, but no one opposed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday.
Support came from all directions — from the ACLU to the Family Leader, from Koch Brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity to the League of Women Voters — for House Study Bill 68 as it cleared the first step in the legislative process.
“This is the single most unique group of advocates I’ve ever seen on a bill,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said. “I think that’s extremely indicative of how important this is to so many people.”
Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, has heard from hundreds of people in recent weeks who encouraged her to support the proposal.
“I do support this bill 100 percent and support what it stands for, which is the redemption and the understanding that it’s not that people don’t make mistakes, but that people can change,” she said.
Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, encouraged his fellow lawmakers to talk to a felon who has had his or her voting rights restored — “almost the proudest thing those people have,” he said.
Reynolds, who has restored the voting rights of 88 people since taking office, is a strong believer in second chances, Kayla Lyon of the Governor’s Office told the subcommittee.
Reynolds believes “that the right to vote is a key piece of reintroduction into society after the discharge of a sentence.”
Reynolds’ proposed amendment would strike “a person convicted of any infamous crime” from the state Constitution’s definition of disqualified voters, and replace it with, “a person convicted of any felony who has not discharged his or her sentence.”
Although there was broad support from diverse groups for the change, one potential sticking point is what is meant by the “discharge” of a sentence.
Some speakers advocated for defining it as completing their sentence, parole and probation. Others suggested it should include payment of restitution to victims.
That’s a decision for legislators, Lyon said, without recommending one definition or the other.
Karl Schilling said many victims’ right advocates, like him, believe felons have not paid their debt to society until they have paid restitution to victims.
While neither endorsing nor opposing the amendment, Schilling rejected the argument that felons have made mistakes and by discharging their sentences they have repaid their debt to society.
“One does not mistakenly rape someone. These are intentional acts,” he said. “In supporting people getting their voting rights, I would hope people would take a clear look at what has happened and to keep victims of these crimes in mind.”
There were also suggestions that the automatic voting rights restoration might not apply to all felons.
Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity said Iowans have a vested interested in felons “pursuing the role of being productive members of society, supporting themselves and their families, finding meaningful work, contributing to their communities.”
“We should also expect a level of civil engagement,” including voting, he said.
In amending the Constitution, Pete McRoberts of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said, legislators “have a tremendous opportunity to follow that trajectory” of progress at the state and national level on criminal justice issues. “You’re doing the right thing.”
While the amendment would not create a blanket pardon for felons, it would “mean that every sentence that should have an end can have an end,” he said.
Betty Andrews of the NAACP, who has been working with Reynolds on the issue, said the loss of voting rights disproportionately impacts African-Americans in Iowa.
“We believe in rehabilitation,” she said, and it is a challenge for many people, especially people of color, “to have to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives after they have completed their sentences.”
Reynolds and lawmakers were praised for taking up the issue and encouraged to disregard any partisan attempts to derail it.
“It does not move the state to the right,” McRoberts said. “It does not move the state to the left. It moves the state forward.”