A proposal for an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would automatically restore voting rights for felons in Iowa passed through a Senate subcommittee last week. Republican Sen. Dan Dawson said it is the first in a two-step process.

There has to be a statutory bill that defines when a sentence would be completed and when voting rights would be automatically restored.

“That bill is where you set what would or wouldn’t be allowed as far as parameters,” Dawson said. “Restitution, fines, things like that. It’s a two-phase bill. It can’t all be done at once.”

Everyone at the subcommittee spoke in favor of the amendment. Many said they wouldn’t favor forcing restitution to be paid in full either.

But the fact is the justice system needs to provide just that — justice. And Dawson said any potential bill has to have a victim’s interest in mind as well.

“I’ve been personally upfront since Day 1,” Dawson said. “I will not be supportive of any type of process that doesn’t recognize victims, specifically on restitution. When we talked about someone who has earned their place back to society and made themselves whole, the fundamental question is have you paid your debts and have you made your victim whole.”

A felon who was convicted of vehicular homicide spoke about feeling like his opinions didn’t matter because he couldn’t vote. He provided compelling testimony for many in attendance, but I had one burning question at the end of the testimony — what about the opinion of the person who died as result of his actions?

Not all felons who have served their time should get the right to vote restored, definitely not automatically. I would find it difficult to support any legislation that did not exclude felons who commit violent crimes, crimes against a minor or crimes that result in someone else’s death. Period.

“Quite frankly, the higher the penalty the more likely it is there will be a lot more fines and restitution and some of that will work itself out in the process,” Dawson said. “By the time they get out of prison if it’s 50 years and they have so much restitution, do we need to specify murder in the second degree or let the parameters work themselves out?”

Ultimately Dawson said he expects the legislators to make clear what the parameters will be well before voters decide on the constitutional amendment, which won’t happen until 2022 at the earliest.

“I don’t see majority support on either side of these chambers without parameters put in before automatic restoration,” Dawson said. “I don’t see this process getting in front of voters without defining the discharge of sentence. It’s not fair to the voters.”

There seems to be universal support that some felonies should not result in a lifetime voting ban. But there’s definitely felonies that should carry consequences that last a lifetime.

It’s important to remember felons aren’t losing their rights because they’re felons, they’re losing their rights because they infringed upon someone else’s rights.

The bills definitely need to be ironed out before asking Iowans to vote on an amendment. There must be a balance of justice and mercy.

And if voting rights are restored, what about other natural rights? What about gun rights for felons?

Currently the governor can grant voting rights back to felons if they apply. Democrats are eager to get this process started, suggesting Gov. Kim Reynolds issue an Executive Order right away so felons can vote in the Iowa Senate special election later this month.

Jacob Hall

Author: Jacob Hall