Iowa’s GOP governor said she will restore voting access to ex-felons. So why the delay?

BY THE WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL BOARD

June 19

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who took office in 2017, has vowed to end her state’s lifetime ban on voting by former felons — the nation’s last remaining such blanket prohibition. Yet even as she announced this week that she will issue an executive order automatically restoring ballot access to tens of thousands of Iowans before the fall elections, Ms. Reynolds has gone squishy on the exact timing and details — or even if she will act in time for these disenfranchised ex-convicts to register and vote in this fall’s elections.

Recent polls suggest the presidential race in Iowa is a dead heat. By waffling at the 11th hour, Ms. Reynolds calls into question her commitment to principle over partisanship. Could it be the governor is prepared to do the right thing, but only if it doesn’t jeopardize President Trump’s chances of carrying her state?

“We’ve got time to work on that,” she said Wednesday, just one day after announcing her intention to issue an executive order restoring the vote to an estimated 60,000 residents who have served their time in prison but remain blocked from the ballot box indefinitely. Her legal team was considering the language, she said.

Actually, Ms. Reynolds has had more than enough time to prepare an order. She announced a year and a half ago that she would seek a state constitutional amendment to automatically restore the vote to most felons after they serve their time. When that stalled in successive years in the GOP-controlled state legislature — predictably, Republican lawmakers balked, evidently fearing that reenfranchising ex-convicts would favor Democrats — Ms. Reynolds could have acted immediately. Instead, she drags her feet, offering lip service in meetings with activists and statements to the media but no concrete plan.

One by one for more than 20 years, states have dropped voting bans that made the United States virtually the only modern Western democracy that penalized former felons indefinitely, and often for decades following their release from prison. In every case, African Americans were disproportionately harmed; in some states, more than 20 percent of voting-age black citizens were barred from voting. In Iowa, about 10 percent of voting-age blacks, none of them incarcerated, are disenfranchised under the current rule. That’s a disgrace.

Since 1997, about half the states have relaxed such lifetime prohibitions. The most recent was Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear last December issued an order that restored the vote to 140,000 residents who had completed sentences for nonviolent felonies. In Iowa, a Democratic governor lifted the voting ban in 2005; six years later, a Republican governor, Ms. Reynolds’s predecessor, rescinded that order.

Ms. Reynolds grasps the rationale for moving ahead; she also knows that nearly two-thirds of Iowans support allowing most former felons to vote. “Restoring voting rights does more than afford a trip to the ballot box,” she said in March last year. “It really resurrects dignity and it begins re-entry into life as a contributing member of our communities.”

If that’s the case, then why further delay?

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