IOWA CITY, Iowa - (Iowa's News Now) — Eric Harris is a devoted dad of six.
In the spacious backyard of the Iowa City home he bought last summer, Harris plays catch with his two youngest. On this Thursday, the girls just wrapped up their online schooling for the day and are riddled with energy and giggles.
Harris, a self-proclaimed news junkie, thinks of them when he thinks of the world he wants to live in. He's educated himself on everything from education to climate change.
"Need to make better choices for our children," he says.
It's part of the reason he's looking forward to November.
"Soon as the polls open up, I'm going to be in line. Don't care if it takes three, four, five, six hours," Harris says. "I haven't voted in 20 plus years. I want to vote."
Harris first voted when he was 18 in Chicago.
"They actually brought ballots inside the jail," he says. "They wanted everyone to participate."
It was the first time he was incarcerated.
Harris moved to Iowa shortly after his release in the late 90s. Not long after, another arrest for another non-violent felony would strip him of his right to vote.
"Made you feel like you wasn't a full citizen of this country. Made you feel like you was a second-class citizen. It was insulting," he recalls.
On August 5th, over a year after she first pitched the idea of felon voting rights restoration and several failed attempts to do so, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order automatically granting those rights to tens of thousands of Iowans who have completed felony sentences and any probation or parole -- Harris included.
"It boils down to our fundamental belief in redemption and second chances," Governor Reynolds said during that signing.
The order has exceptions for homicide felonies and related crimes outlined in Iowa law. Those individuals won’t get their rights automatically restored when they complete their sentences, but they can still petition the governor on an individual basis.
Ex-felons are not required to have fully paid victim restitution debt and court fines and fees before they are allowed to vote again, a provision some worried would be akin to a poll tax. The order doesn’t absolve felons of those financial obligations, but Iowans will not need to have fully repaid those debts as condition to vote. The average restitution debt in fiscal year 2019 was about $11,000, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch.
Harris had written and sent a letter to Governor Reynolds days before that order; he says he wanted to explain his crimes and why he and others like him should not continue to be punished. The letter came as part of Harris' campaign for felon voting right restoration with ACLU Iowa.
Harris and the ACLU are now working to inform other former felons of their new right and how to use it.
"We're trying to get those materials in parole offices and many places, re-entry programs," says Veronica Fowler, communications director for ACLU Iowa.
The work isn't over for full felon voter right restoration.
"Since this is an executive order, another governor can come into office and reverse that with an executive order of their own," Fowler says.
That's exactly what happened in 2011. Then-Governor Terry Branstad signed an executive order rescinding former Governor Tom Vilsack's 2005 felon voting rights order.
Fowler and Harris say the only way to ensure that countless more Iowans will be ensured voting rights upon completion of felony sentences is a constitutional amendment. It's also a way to show Iowans returning to the world they not only have a voice, Harris says, but that they don't have to make the same mistakes again.
"We need to give people a chance," he says. "You can tell a person who's coming back from jail, you can come back and maybe you can find a job, maybe you can find an apartment, but you can't vote. You're not a part of this country. That doesn't encourage them to want to do better."