Right on voting, wrong on schools

It’s been a busy week for Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The governor issued an executive order on Wednesday to restore the voting rights of Iowans who have completed their sentences — including probation, parole or any special conditions — for felony convictions, excluding those convicted of murder or manslaughter, who must seek to have their cases reviewed first.

It was a wise move on the part of the Republican governor. She had been urged to do so, following in the footsteps of Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who signed a similar order in 2005. It was not retained by Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who returned to the office in 2011.

Iowa was the only state in the nation that did not allow citizens to reclaim their right to vote after finishing their sentence. It impacted 52,000 people who paid a price for their crimes but deserve to have the full rights of citizenship.

“When someone serves their sentence and pays the price our justice system has set for their crime, they should have their right to vote restored automatically, plain and simple,” Reynolds said at the state capitol in Des Moines.

The governor said this should not be left up to each administration to decide. The state should pass a constitutional amendment to ensure people who have completed their sentence are allowed to vote.

“Let me be clear: an executive order is, at best, a temporary solution. It can be changed with a stroke of a pen by the next governor, which is not good enough,” Reynolds said. “Something that is fundamentally right should not be based on benevolence of a single elected official.”

We agree. Reynolds did the right thing to allow citizens to participate in this election. We must ensure they can do so from now on. Pass the amendment.

While Reynolds acted appropriately on voting rights, we are disappointed in her comments directed at the media.

On Tuesday, AP reporter David Pitts asked her during a news conference about the risk to teachers and students as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Pitts said he had heard genuine concern expressed at a school board meeting about a teacher dying or a student getting ill.

Reynolds cut him off.

“This is part of the problem,” she said. “The scare tactics that’s being laid out by the media. I’ve walked through the numbers.”

Pitts said he was unhappy with the governor’s assertion and we share that view. He asked a legitimate question based on reporting at a school board meeting.

That’s hardly a “scare tactic.” It was responsible journalism and Reynolds, after her long public career, should be used to such questions without resorting to such demeaning and distracting tactics.

She should be used to the heat, especially in the midst of this crisis. Reynolds said she is ordering school districts to resume in-person instruction, and if they do not do so, it will not count as instructional time.

“Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in-person instruction are not defying me, they are defying the law,” she said. “If schools move to primarily remote learning without approval, according again to the law, those days do not count toward instructional time.”

School administrators also could face sanctions, she said. Despite that assertion, some Iowa school districts are considering challenging the governor’s ruling on schools. It’s a divisive issue, filled with emotion and tension.

We think each school district should decide for itself based on COVID-19 statistics in its area. There should be no blanket rule for all of Iowa — let communities determine what is safe for them.

That’s the proper tactic. Let’s not be scared to allow them to decide.