DES MOINES —
Felons discharged from criminal sentences would have their voting rights automatically restored under a bill backed by a Senate panel Wednesday.
In a 9-to-6 vote, Democrats on the State Government Committee passed the bill, with all six Republicans on the panel voting no.
The bill would require that voting rights be restored to felons after they leave prison and complete the terms of their release. After his election, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad took action that made Iowa among four states requiring felons to apply to the governor to have voting rights restored. That move reversed a decision by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that restored voting rights to felons after their terms were completed.
The issue of felons voting has received attention recently as Secretary of State Matt Schultz has used federal money to investigate people believed to have illegally cast ballots. There have been relatively few cases in Iowa, but those charged have often been felons who said they didn’t realize their voting rights hadn’t been restored.
Schultz also has acknowledged that the state’s system for checking whether former inmates have the right to vote is flawed and needs significant changes.
Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the bill, said automatic restoration of voting rights to felons after their terms are completed would lessen confusion at the polls. He said former inmates have already been punished for their crimes and shouldn’t be punished further once they are free.
“The reality is that these people paid their dues,” he said. “They did everything they’re supposed to do. They paid their taxes. They should be able to vote.”
Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, opposed the bill, saying it would prematurely restore voting rights. He said felons should not automatically receive the right to vote, especially if they have not yet paid their fines and court costs.
U.S. Attorney Eric Holder called Tuesday for Iowa and other states to ease rules restricting voting by felons.