That took guts. Yet, as Ms. Reynolds acknowledged, her move is a temporary solution. In the absence of an amendment to the state constitution, a future governor could reverse her order. In fact, that’s precisely what her Republican predecessor did, in 2011, by reimposing a ban on felon enfranchisement that had been lifted by a Democratic governor in 2005.
In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million Americans were barred from voting because of felon disenfranchisement laws, a number that had quintupled over four decades. More than 7 percent of voting-age Black Americans were banned; the same applied to fewer than 2 percent of other adult Americans. Since then those numbers have dwindled as holdout states restored voting rights. But, as in Iowa, in Virginia and Kentucky the shift was achieved through a governor’s order, which may be reversed in the future.
Even constitutional amendments may be insufficient to thwart Republican state lawmakers desperate to retain an electoral edge. In Florida, nearly two-thirds of voters backed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to restore voting rights to most felons who had served their sentences, only to see the full impact of that change gutted by a GOP-backed bill requiring that felons pay court fines and fees before they can cast a ballot. In fact, the state maintains no comprehensive database listing those fines and fees; no official can say for sure which felons are eligible to vote and which are not. Still, Republican legislators imposed stiff penalties for unauthorized voting by felons, and the effect may well be as they hope: Tens of thousands of Floridians, disproportionately Black, are likely to be frozen out of this year’s election.
As in Florida, roughly two-thirds of Iowans supported Ms. Reynolds’s decision to cast off a prohibition on basic rights born of bigotry. For Ms. Reynolds, the move was also personal: Having been convicted of drunken driving and treated for alcoholism more than two decades ago, she believes in second chances. Regaining voting rights is “a big step for so many on the road to redemption, and proving to themselves and maybe to others that their crimes or convictions do not define them,” she said. Hear, hear.