Each legislative session has its challenges, but the 2020 session had more than its share. After its usual start in January, the Legislature suspended in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reconvened in mid-June, met for 10 days, and then adjourned for the year.

Meanwhile, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests all across the country and in Iowa. It’s been a formative moment in our history and has led to some first steps of positive change. The protests in Iowa, for instance, prompted Iowa legislators to unanimously pass a police and criminal legal system reform bill in the waning days of the session.

And yet, there is much more work to be done. We must undo the deep, systemic racial disparities that pervade policing in Iowa and the Iowa criminal legal system. We must redress the resulting damage inflicted on Iowans who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Racial Justice

A key example: Despite our years-long advocacy, along with partners like Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and so many others, the Iowa Legislature still hasn’t passed a comprehensive, meaningful, statewide anti-racial profiling bill.

Over the past four years, a series of bills to combat racial profiling in our state were introduced but didn't make much progress through the legislature.1 And this year, not a single anti-racial profiling bill was introduced. It’s way past time for the Iowa Legislature to pass a comprehensive, meaningful, statewide anti-racial profiling bill.

We call on the Iowa Legislature to pass legislation that:

  1. bans racial profiling
  2. bans pretextual stops
  3. requires data collection/analysis and public dissemination of that data
  4. creates an advisory council to make recommendations to law enforcement about best practices and
  5. requires training

After the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests—and after taking no action on racial justice legislation for most of the session—in the waning days of the 2020 session, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed HF2647. That bill:

  • Defines and bans most, but not all, chokeholds by police
  • Authorizes the Iowa Attorney General to prosecute law enforcement when they kill people and/or recommend revocation or suspension of a person’s law enforcement certification
  • Prevents an officer from being hired in the state if they have previously been convicted of a felony, fired for serious misconduct or was laid off or quit to avoid being fired for serious misconduct. 
  • Mandates that every law enforcement agency in the state to provide and every law enforcement officer in the state to participate in annual de-escalation and prevention of bias training.
  • Mandates that the law enforcement academy issue and every law enforcement officer adhere to training guidelines on de-escalation, prevention of bias, diversity, racial/ethnic and other kinds of disparities, and on the history and role of the civil rights movement.

It is a small first step in holding police accountable for killing people, who are disproportionately Black people and people of color.


Legislators considered no fewer than five pieces of legislation designed to limit a person’s right to an abortion. With each, there was advance notice and public hearings, and none made it to the Governor’s desk—including a proposed state constitutional amendment to take away the right to abortion under the State Constitution.

Then, at 10:18 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, with almost no public notice and no hearings, the House introduced an amendment to HF594 to require a person to attend a second, medically unnecessary second appointment for an abortion.

In a state where people often have to drive hours to access abortion care, requiring two trips could create childcare, work, and transportation barriers. Ultimately, it is an attempt to stop Iowans from exercising their constitutional right to abortion.

The amendment was ruled not germane by the House Speaker but using House procedural rules, the House pressed on and passed the bill with the amendment late that night. The Senate then took up the bill with the amendment at 4:22 a.m. Sunday, June 14, and passed it at 5:41 a.m. The Governor signed it a few weeks later on June 29.

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Iowa have sued to block this law. In June, the Court issued a temporary injunction that will stay in place while the lawsuit is litigated and, we hope, permanently struck down.

Voting Rights

The Iowa Senate failed the people of Iowa when they refused to vote on HJR 14, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have restored the right to vote to Iowans with a felony conviction once the person completed their sentence with no exceptions for certain crimes or payments.

HJR 14 had support from across the political spectrum, including being introduced by Gov. Reynolds and passing the Iowa House by an overwhelming 95-2 vote. In a state where an estimated one in 10 Black Iowans cannot vote because of a felony conviction, this is also a crucial racial justice issue.

The ACLU will continue to fight to change Iowa’s Constitution and permanently end felon disenfranchisement.

Meanwhile, Gov. Reynolds has pledged to issue an executive order restoring voting rights to people convicted of a felony sometime before the November election. We, along with Des Moines Black Lives Matter and so many others, are keeping up the pressure for Gov. Reynolds to issue this executive order with no exceptions.

Another bill related to lifetime disenfranchisement, SF 2348, also passed the Legislature. It would have created exceptions specifically to HJR 14 by specifying who would not get their voting rights back in HJR 14 passed. Since HJR 14 didn't pass, SF 2348 won't go into effect and is dead (even though that bill passed the House and Senate and the Governor signed it).

The legislature also passed HF 2486 and HF 2643, two bills designed to make it harder for Iowans to exercise their right to vote.

HF 2486 requires the Iowa Secretary of State to get approval from a committee of lawmakers called the Legislative Council to change emergency election procedures if the Secretary uses emergency powers.

Even though the Secretary of State did not use emergency powers to mail absentee ballot request forms to registered Iowa voters before the June 2020 primary election, this was a clear attempt by the Legislature to intimidate the Secretary into not mailing absentee ballot request forms to all registered Iowa voters again. The Legislative Council then turned down a proposal to allow the Secretary to do a similar mailing for the November elections.

This is particularly appalling given the record-breaking June 2020 primary election in which more than 531,000 Iowans voted, breaking the previous record of 449,490 in 1994. In June, more than 424,000 Iowans voted absentee, compared to 38,000 in the 2016 primary election.

Fortunately, in July, the Legislative Council approved a request by the Iowa Secretary of State, allowing his office to mailing absentee ballot request forms to registered voters in their counties to make it easier for voters to exercise that right, protect their health and protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other bill, HF 2643, expanded voter ID to in-person early voting and prohibited county auditors from using the information in the voter system that voters already provided to them to fill in blanks on the absentee ballot request form if the voter writes incomplete or incorrect information on the form and instead requires the county auditors to contact the voter by telephone, email or physical mail to get the information.

These barriers to early voting—either in-person or by mail—are burdensome and unnecessary, and are even more so during a worldwide pandemic.

Good Bills That Didn't Pass

Unfortunately, a number of bills that would have promoted civil liberties didn’t make it through the session. Those bills would have:

  • Required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers (HF 109)
  • Eliminated criminal penalties for possessing marijuana (HF 2208)
  • Provide court-awarded attorney fees for successful local “ban-the-box” challenge (HF2309)
  • Barred conversion therapy for minors regarding sexual orientation/gender identity (HSB 698/SF 2257)
  • Allowed college student ID cards without a photo and expiration date to be used for voter registration (SF 2126)
  • Prohibited employer from requiring employee have a microchip or other device implanted or inserted in the employee’s body (HF 2361)

Bad Bills That Didn't Pass

We're glad to report that a number of anti-civil liberties bills, including 13 anti-LGBTQ bills, did not make it through the session. They would have:

  • Removed gender identity from the Iowa Civil Rights Act (HF 2164)
  • Given license for any person or business to discriminate in the name of religion  (SF 508)
  • Limited the power of the Iowa Judicial Branch, a separate, co-equal branch of government, and authorized the Legislature to overturn Iowa Supreme Court decisions and/or impeach justices who the Legislature believed decided a case wrongly (SSB 3181)
  • Barred healthcare providers from providing gender-affirming procedures to minors by threatening them with  criminal penalties (SF2213) or civil penalties (HF 2272)
  • Required applicants to tell the government their sexual orientation based on a limited list of sexual orientations provided by the government on a marriage license and created a presumption in law against LGBTQ parents getting custody of their children  (SF 2130)
  • Required high-school athletes to compete based upon their sex designation at birth (HF 2202)
  • Required law enforcement to racially profiling immigrants in Iowa to collect data on the number and types of number and types of citations issued to some, but not all, immigrants. It also would have required collecting data on the number of and types of crimes some, but not all, immigrants were convicted of.

1 In 2016, HF 2376 and SF 2173 were introduced. HF 2376 wasn’t even assigned to a subcommittee and died, while SF 2173 passed out of committee in the Senate, became SF 2267 then died. In 2017, HF 499 and SSB 1177 were introduced. Yet again, the House bill, HF 499, wasn’t even assigned to a subcommittee and died. The Senate bill, SSB 1177, passed out of committee then died. In 2018, the Senate revived SSB 1177; it passed out of committee then died. The House took no action in 2018.  In 2019, HF 122 was introduced, wasn’t assigned a subcommittee and died; the Senate took no action.