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Iowa Moves Toward Expanding Voting Rights. But It May Require a ‘Modern Day Poll Tax.’

Lawmakers are debating whether to let people with felony convictions vote—but there could be a catch.

Iowa governor Kim Reynolds celebrates her re-election
Iowa Governor Kim ReynoldsJoshua Lott/Getty Images

When central Iowa resident Rick Sattler got into a car crash and pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in 2006, he didn’t realize he was also giving up his right to vote. It wasn’t until he finished his five years of probation when the 60-year-old trucking company employee learned he wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot for the rest of his life.

“It made me feel like I didn’t matter anymore, to be honest with you,” he said. “I had always been politically active.”

Sattler avoided prison by accepting the plea deal, but his sentence included an order to pay $150,000 in restitution, a payment to the victim meant to remedy the harm he caused. If he continues paying off $100 a month, as he has done for years, he will be paying the bill for the rest of his life.

“I look at it as a bill that will probably never be paid, unless I win the lottery,” he said.

Governor Kim Reynolds has said this year that she wants to prioritize restoring voting rights to people like Sattler. In January, she introduced resolutions in both the House and Senate that would overturn a lifetime felon voting ban through a constitutional amendment.

Currently, under Iowa law, more than 52,000 people who have completed felony sentences are prohibited from voting for life. The state is one of three (alongside Kentucky and Virginia) that still permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions.

Reynolds has personal experience with the criminal justice system that has made her vocal about her belief in second chances. In 2000, almost two decades before she would become the first female governor of Iowa, she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. It was her second offense—she had been charged with the same crime the year before—but she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to pay a $1,500 fine and serve 12 months of informal probation.

“There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose,” she said in her first Condition of the State address in January. “I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” she added later.

Reynolds’s proposed amendment would need to be approved by two consecutive general assemblies and then by voters.

Such a requirement would keep people like Sattler from voting simply because they can’t afford to pay.

But some in the state are already pushing back. Some lawmakers and the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance want to add a requirement that individuals pay off all restitution before becoming eligible.

Such a requirement would keep people like Sattler from voting simply because they can’t afford to pay. Advocacy groups say it would amount to a “modern day poll tax,” and the ACLU said it would not support an amendment with a restitution payment requirement, according to the Des Moines Register.

One Republican representative, Bobby Kaufmann, told the Des Moines Register he would not support the constitutional amendment without a requirement that people pay off restitution debt before their rights are restored, but later added was open to discussion. Senator Brad Zaun, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also told the Register that he was interested in considering the payment of restitution as a factor in a potential amendment.

Last week, the proposal passed its first legislative hurdle when it moved past the House Judiciary subcommittee.

Without a constitutional amendment, the power to restore rights in Iowa is left up to the governor. In the three states that still permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions, the governor has the sole discretion to decide who should be able to vote. Under this system, very few people have been able to regain their rights.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin gave himself that power on the belief that anyone who wants to vote after completing his or her sentence should have to apply individually to him.

Reynolds, however, has said she doesn’t believe she should have that ability. Advocacy groups, including the ACLU, agree.

“A basic tenet of democracy is that you don’t want to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, period, full stop,” Veronica Fowler, communications director of the ACLU of Iowa, told The Appeal.

When he took office in Iowa in 2011, then-Governor Terry Branstad issued an executive order that made the process for rights restoration nearly impossible. While the previous governor had allowed automatic restoration, Branstad required anyone who wanted to vote to individually petition him. The application process was difficult, even after he streamlined the process, and most who succeeded were helped by attorneys or civil rights organizations.

A basic tenet of democracy is that you don’t want to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, period, full stop.

Veronica Fowler communications director of the ACLU of Iowa

“At one point, you had to include your credit score as part of the application process,” Fowler said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“They would say, ‘It’s only one page,’” she added. “Well, it’s one page the way a tax form is one page. There’s a ton of work and energy that has to go into it. You can be charged with perjury if you put incorrect information on it. Especially if you’re somebody with a criminal background, the last thing you want is additional charges.”

Since taking office in 2017, Reynolds has restored voting rights to 88 people who completed felony sentences. During Branstad’s six years in office, roughly 20 people had their rights restored each year. Meanwhile, roughly 2 percent of the state’s population—52,012 people—was unable to vote in 2016 because of the lifetime ban.

While the process for a constitutional amendment won’t be quick, advocates say they are encouraged by the success in Florida last year, where a bipartisan group convinced almost 65 percent of the state to support a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million people.

“That really turned a tide,” Fowler said. “I think everybody saw the writing on the wall at that point.”

Sattler said he would be disappointed if lawmakers were to exclude people like him from an automatic restoration process, given that a large percentage of people who have completed their sentences are still paying off some kind of fines or fees.

Sattler said he’s had trouble securing a job because of his criminal record. He used to be a private investigator, but the felony conviction bars him from holding the necessary license. Now, he works for a trucking company. He said he has never missed his monthly restitution payment, a factor he thinks the state should take into account when considering who should be eligible to vote under a potential constitutional amendment.

“To be told that your opinion truly doesn’t matter and you have to accept whatever we say, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow,” he said.