Voting and Firearm Rights in Iowa – What You Can Do To Restore Them

GRL Law has previously blogged on weapons law regarding both firearms and non-firearm weapons, recent changes in Iowa firearms laws, and restoration of firearm rights for individuals who have been the subject of mental health holds. This blog will deal with loss of voting rights and firearms rights generally and the process for restoring them.

Currently, Iowa law bans anyone convicted of a felony from voting in elections, holding public office, and possessing a firearm unless they have had their rights restored by the government.  Convictions for certain crimes other than felonies can trigger firearms bans as well.  There has been a lot of talk from legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds this year about establishing a procedure for automatically restoring a felon’s voting rights after the person discharges their sentence and pays their debt to society.  This legislation, however, is still pending and is not guaranteed to be passed into law.  Further, the proposed legislation would NOT restore a felon’s rights to possess a firearm.  This blog will provide a brief history of felon rights and restoration of rights in Iowa, indicate what individuals are subject to voting and firearms bans, and provide an overview of the processes for restoring voting and firearms rights. 

A Brief History: “Infamous Crimes” and Voting Rights

Under Article II, Section 5 of Iowa’s Constitution, all persons adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or convicted of any “infamous crime” are ineligible to vote in any election held in Iowa. What makes a crime an “infamous crime?”  For a long time, we weren’t exactly sure, because no definition of “infamous crime” is found in Iowa’s Constitution.  Therefore, the Iowa legislature and Iowa Courts have attempted over time to define what “infamous crimes” means, both through legislation and through Court decisions interpreting the phrase. There has been some back and forth as to the definition, but in 2018, in a case called Griffin v. Pate, the Iowa Supreme Court finally pronounced that an “infamous crime” essentially means a felony conviction.

The short answer: Felons can’t vote or hold public office.

That doesn’t end the story, though. 

Article IV, section 16 of the Iowa Constitution grants a Governor generally what is referred to as the “power of the pardon.” Basically, a pardon means that the governor has the authority to restore citizenship rights, including the rights to vote and hold office.  Governors have taken different approaches on how a person can reclaim their right to vote.  In 2005, Governor Vilsack issued an Executive Order stating that felons who have completely discharged from their felony sentence (including any term of probation or parole) would be automatically considered for restoration of their voting rights and right to hold public office.  In 2011, Governor Branstad reversed course and rescinded the Vilsack order.  Instead, Governor Branstad required that a person requesting to restore their rights after a felony conviction must submit an application to be considered for a restoration of rights.  The application process was somewhat complex and lengthy.  In fact, the application process was so difficult, there were only 17 applications made in 2015.

In 2016, Governor Branstad’s office implemented a new policy whereby the application process was “streamlined” and cut down on the paperwork required to be filed to request a voting rights restoration. 
Iowa remains only one of two states in the nation- Iowa and Kentucky- where all felons are stripped of their right to vote unless the government approves the reinstatement of their voting rights.

Firearms, Felons, and Forfeiture of Rights

Firearms rights can also be lost by way of a felony conviction, but can also be lost through convictions for other crimes as well.  Unlike the loss of voting rights, the loss of firearms rights in Iowa in most cases is due to laws passed by the federal or state legislature and not due to provisions found in the federal or state Constitutions. Most of the firearm prohibitors are found in sections 724.8, 724.25, and 724.26 of the Iowa Code and Title 18 section 922 of the United States Code. 

Iowans will lose their right to possess a firearm upon any of the following occurring:

  • A conviction for a felony
  • A juvenile adjudication for a felony
  • A conviction for a crime of domestic violence (even if it’s a simple misdemeanor, that counts!)
  • An individual who is the subject of a protective order (i.e. a no-contact order for a domestic violence charge)
  • An individual addicted to the use of alcohol
  • A conviction for an aggravated misdemeanor for a crime involving an explosive or firearm
  • A finding that you are a mental defective
  • A pending/open deferred judgment for a prohibiting offense

This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers most situations that apply to loss of firearms rights.

So, what’s the short answer? Who is prohibited from voting? Who is prohibited from possessing a weapon?

Voting: You can’t vote in Iowa if you have been convicted of a felony.
Firearms: You can’t possess a firearm if you’re a felon, if you’ve been convicted of a domestic assault charge, or if one of the other prohibitors found in Iowa Code sections 724.8, 724.25, 724.26 or 18 U.S.C. § 922 apply. 

So, it looks like I’m not eligible to Vote and/or Possess a Firearm. What can I do About it?

In Iowa, there are two separate and distinct ways to restore your lost voting and firearm rights. 
Special Restoration of Citizenship: This restores your firearm rights.
Application for Restoration of Voting Rights (and the Right to Hold Public Office): This one is self- explanatory.

Who Can Apply for a Restoration of Voting Rights?

In general, anyone who has been convicted of a felony in Iowa, in federal court, or in any other state may apply for restoration of voting rights once the person has discharged probation or parole.  The applicant must have completed repayment of court costs, restitution, and fines or must be current on a payment plan.

You do not need to apply if you were convicted of a felony and discharged your sentence before July 4, 2005 (because your voting rights have already been restored pursuant to Governor Vilsack’s Order), or if you received a deferred judgment for a felony and successfully completed probation. If either of these situations apply to you, you still have your voting rights.

If you believe that you qualify for a restoration of voting rights, the application can be found here: .

NOTE: A person who gets their voting and public office rights restored is not automatically granted their firearms rights back.  That requires a Special Restoration of Citizenship.

Who Can Apply for a Special Restoration of Citizenship (i.e. restoration of firearms rights)?

Let’s start with who cannot apply for a Special Restoration of Citizenship Rights:

  • An individual convicted of a forcible felony in any of the following forms
    • Child endangerment
    • Assault
    • Murder
    • Sexual abuse
    • Kidnapping
    • Robbery
    • Arson (First degree)
    • Burglary (First degree)
  • A Felony conviction of Iowa Code Chapter 724 (Weapons)
  • A Felony involving Iowa Code Chapter 124 (drugs/controlled substances) and firearms
  • An individual convicted of a federal felony
  • An individual convicted of a crime of domestic violence

If you have a conviction for any of the above crimes, you CANNOT get your firearms rights restored.

If your conviction does not disqualify you from applying to restore your firearms rights, the general policy of the Governor’s Office is to wait to review any Application for Special Restoration until 5 years have passed since the person discharged their sentence (i.e. released from probation or parole supervision).
It should be noted that a Special Restoration or restoration of voting rights does not erase the original charge and does not seal or expunge the record of the conviction.
If you do apply for restoration, understand that the Application process involves a lot of legwork. You will need to provide all of the following:

  • A completed Application, including a signed and dated Release
  • Proof of payment of court fines, costs, and restitution
  • A current resume or written list of work history
  • A current Iowa criminal history record from the Department of Criminal Investigations
  • A current credit history
  • A list of three references who are unrelated to you
  • A list of letters of recommendation from all of the following
    • Prosecuting attorney in your case
    • Sentencing judge in your case
    • County Sheriff in the County you reside in
    • Minister (if you have one)
    • Present and former employers
    • Any other reputable persons in your community

***Failure to include ALL of the above stated materials will result in the Governor’s Office rejecting you application without consideration.***
It is also important to note that the application and waiting process can take two years or more and are exceedingly rare to be granted.  The number of special restorations granted each year has been 5 or less between 2011-2015 (the most recent years for which the Governor’s website has statistics readily available).  
If you feel that you may qualify for a Special Restoration of Citizenship (i.e. firearms rights), the Application packet can be found here:  

What’s the Current Status of Any Potential Changes in the Law regarding the rights?

While the above information provides a bit of background on the current state of the law in Iowa regarding loss of firearm and voting rights and how to restore them, there is some current interest amongst the legislature and Governor’s office in a constitutional amendment to restore felon rights automatically after a sentence is discharged.
On March 6, 2019, the Iowa General Assembly passed a bill out of the House Judiciary Committee which would amend the Iowa Constitution to remove that odd phrase “infamous crime” and replace it with a statement that felons who have discharged their sentence would be automatically eligible to vote.
In order for this constitutional amendment to become law, it would have to go through a three-step process:

  1. It would have to be passed by a majority in both the House and Senate of the 2019 Iowa Legislature.
  2. It would then have to be passed by a majority in both the House and Senate of the 2020 Iowa Legislature.
  3. After it was passed in two successive legislative sessions, the resolution would then be submitted to the voters in Iowa to determine if the amendment should become part of Iowa’s Constitution.

A restoration of rights after a criminal conviction can be a complex, lengthy, and difficult process.  The reward, however, for recovering of some of the most deeply cherished rights in our society can be a fulfilling feeling allowing a person to feel as though they are a valued part of the population again.  If you feel that you may be entitled to a restoration of rights, make sure to contact an experienced attorney who can advise you through the process.