Iowa bill ties restitution payment to felon voting right

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Felons would be required to repay restitution to victims before they could get their voting right restored under a bill passed Tuesday by the Iowa Senate.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Kim Reynolds for the first time indicated support for the measure after having previously stood firm that she didn’t want to make voting rights restoration more difficult.

Currently, felons must apply to the governor individually and Reynolds has required that they have at least a payment plan for court-ordered financial obligations but not total repayment to be considered.

Senate Republicans are insisting on complete repayment to victims before they will consider passing a separate constitutional amendment that would automatically restore felon voting rights upon the completion of a sentence, a priority of Reynolds that Republicans failed to pass last year.

“The most disappointing part of this entire process for the last 13 months when we’re trying to find a way to standardize this process is the absolute lack of discussion around the victims,” said Iowa Republican Sen. Dan Dawson, of Council Bluffs, an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent who authored the bill.

He said some felons commit crimes so serious they’ve chosen to opt out of society and should never get rights back. Others have made choices in their lives and shouldn’t escape the requirement to repay their victims, he said.

Reynolds said lawmakers have narrowed the repayment requirement to just victim restitution and not court fees and costs which is a compromise she could support.

“Compromise is part of how we get things done. When you show no willingness to compromise then nothing ever happens, so we’ll continue to work with them and see what happens,” she said.

The proposed constitutional amendment must pass this year and again next year before it could be voted on by Iowans in a general election in 2022. The Republican legislative strategy has apparently been to hold up action on that amendment until they pass a bill that would restrict the voting rights restoration to only those felons who have repaid restitution. The bill also excludes serious crimes such as murder and manslaughter from automatic voting rights restoration. Those crimes would still require a pardon or individual restoration of rights from the governor. It passed 37-11 and moves to the House for consideration.

It’s unclear if the bill’s restitution payment could withstand a court challenge.

Last month a federal appeals court in Atlanta declared a similar Florida requirement unconstitutional. The three-judge panel upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction halting enforcement of the separate law implementing the voter-approved Florida requirement, which critics say amounts to an unfair poll tax that would disenfranchise many released felons.

Reynolds was unfazed and said it’s not unusual for a new law to be challenged in court.

ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer has said the organization opposes exclusions to the constitutional amendment.

“The ACLU of Iowa remains steadfast in our commitment to end lifetime disenfranchisement so that Iowa is not the last and only state in the country to bar a person, for life, from voting after being convicted of a felony,” he said. “We’re disappointed that the governor would support a bill to exclude certain people. Democracy works best when more, not fewer, people participate.”

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