Bill to restore felon voting rights stalls in Iowa Senate

DAVID PITT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A Republican-led Iowa Senate committee failed Thursday to advance a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for felons, killing one of GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds' top proposals ahead of a legislative deadline.

Reynolds has advocated strongly for the policy for convicted felons saying she believes in redemption. She gained significant support from a diverse group of advocates that rarely join together including religious groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and conservative leaning policy organizations like Americans for Prosperity.

"I am disappointed in today's setback, but I will not give up the fight for Iowans who deserve a second chance," she said in a statement. "There's more work to do, but I am committed to getting this done."

The resolution passed with bipartisan support in the House 95-2 last week. It had to win approval of the Senate this year and pass again in the Legislature in 2021 or 2022 before going to voters.

Failure to get through the Senate Judiciary Committee means it fails to get through Thursday's legislative deadline that requires House bills to pass a Senate committee to survive.

Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, pulled the measure from the Thursday afternoon committee agenda. He said he promised Reynolds he'd bring it up in his committee but didn't have votes in the Republican caucus to advance it. The committee has 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

"Personally, I have some concerns about just automatic reinstatement of felons' voting rights, but I promised her I would go to caucus and after having a long discussion during caucus we as a group decide we were not going to move it out of committee," he said.

Some lawmakers want to require total repayment of restitution before rights could be restored, a hurdle many felons could never cross. Others wanted language to exclude those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation from ever getting voting rights back.

Zaun said failure to get the bill through doesn't speak to Reynolds' influence within her own party.

"I've been down here a long time and there's been many governors that didn't get everything they wanted," he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen said Democrats agreed with the governor and applauded the strong support in the House.

"It is shameful that Sen. Brad Zaun and other Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee killed this priority legislation for the 2019 session," she said.

Petersen called on the governor to use her authority to issue an executive order and return voting rights to felons that way. Reynolds has said the change should be permanent and not at the whim of one person.

In 2005, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack signed such an executive order and restored voting rights to convicted felons upon completion of their sentence but Reynolds' predecessor Republican Gov. Terry Branstad reversed it in 2011.

Since then Iowa voter registration is canceled upon conviction of a felony. Rights can only be restored by the governor.

Only Iowa and Kentucky have such strict requirements.

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