A bill that would propose an amendment to the Iowa Constitution was signed through subcommittee on Wednesday, though just about everyone agreed details need to be figured out as things progress.
The bill would provide automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentence. A broad coalition of groups supported the bill, from the ACLU to The Family Leader. From Americans For Prosperity to the League of Women Voters of Iowa.
Nobody spoke publicly against the bill.
Much of the testimony hinged upon the idea of integrating back into the community.
Zeb Beilke-McCallum of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence said the group supports the measure.
“Restoring voting rights to citizens who have served their time is a simple issue of fairness,” he said.
Beilke-McCallum said the restriction disproportionately impacts the black community because of significant racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.
A representative from the League of Women Voters said Iowa is one of two states left in the nation that permanently bans all felons from voting, unless the governor restores their right to vote either through individual application or executive order.
Pastors spoke in support of the bill as well.
Rick Sattler said he’s a convicted felon. In 2006, he said, he was convicted for vehicular homicide. He received a sentence and is required to pay $150,000 in restitution. He said he’s paying off restitution as best he can, but should any language in the bill include a requirement to have paid restitution in full, it would be more strict then that it is now.
“Not being able to vote is a travesty,” he said. “Without the privilege of the right to vote, your opinion doesn’t matter. I’ve slowly rebuilt my life.”
Sattler has not gone through the application process for having his voting rights restored. He said that task seems daunting and confusing.
“People think that people with felony convictions must be walking around with horns on their head, scary tattoos,” he said. “I can promise you that a lot of us are just ordinary people. We’re your neighbors, we’re your family, your coworkers, your friends — there are over 60,000 of us in Iowa who cannot vote because of a felony conviction.”
Mark Stringer of the ACLU said withholding the right to vote from convicted felons is a destructive, draconian approach.
“Denying Iowans the right to vote does nothing to keep our communities safer or make our democracy stronger,” Stringer said. “It prevents thousands of Iowans from successfully reintegrating into society.”
Connie Ryan said it’s a matter of fairness for people who have gone to prison and paid their time.
Drew Klein of Americans For Prosperity said the bill is part of a broader umbrella of criminal justice reform.
“We all have vested interest in ensuring public safety and making sure our justice system aligns with that,” Klein said. “Nothing about disenfranchising a voter who has completed their sentence enhances public safety.”
Klein said treating people like second-class citizens contributes to a cycle of recidivism. He cited a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
Greg Baker of The Family Leader spoke in support. He said the bill has been one of the most fun bills he’s worked on in the legislature.
“Not every day do you see a coalition like this at the Capitol,” he said.
He also said the ability to talk about redemption was refreshing.
“My reason for supporting this is just as a Christian I think it reflects the character of God,” Baker said. “When I confessed my sins to Christ, Christ paid the debt that I owed. We’re talking about people paying their own debt; Christ paid my debt. It was instant restoration.”
Democrat Sen. Janet Petersen said she’d enthusiastically support the legislation but wants the governor to put forth an executive order so it can impact the upcoming special election for the Iowa Senate seat left open by former Sen. Jeff Danielson.
“We have several elections between now and when this could go into effect,” Petersen said. “The governor has a different level of power in her office. She does have the power of executive order. I believe it would show a strong message for the legislature to pass this in a bipartisan way and give her the support she needs if she wants to immediately restore voting rights for thousands of Iowans.”
Sen. Tom Shipley said he knows people who have served time and knows people who have been victims. He said ultimately people should remember the amendment will go before a vote of the people.
Senator Dan Dawson thanked everyone for speaking.
“We do take this to heart,” Dawson said.
He said he knows some people were convicted of felonies, but would never know it until years later through conversation. Much of the details of what the actual policy will look like need to be figured out, but the conversation should continue.