Iowa judge rules against voting rights for felons, state Supreme Court expected to weigh in

An Iowa judge ruled earlier this week in favor of strictly curtailed voting rights for ex-felons in the state.

The case was brought as a challenge to the state’s ill-defined constitutional ban on felons convicted of “infamous crimes” from voting, as well as an attempt to reconcile conflicting statutes relating to when and how ex-felons have their rights restored once they are no longer under state supervision.

Some background:

In 2005, then-Governor Tom Vilsack signed a law that automatically restored felons’ voting rights after they left state supervision. In 2011, current Governor Terry Brandstad signed an executive order requiring them to petition his office in order to take advantage of those restored rights. According to the Des Moines Register, “The Branstad process requires ex-felons to complete a detailed application, submit proof that court costs have been paid and provide a detailed criminal history.” Only Kentucky and Florida have similarly strict requirements.

Brandstad’s executive order threw the status of ex-felons like Kelli Jo Griffin into question. Griffin, who completed her parole for a cocaine conviction in 2008, registered to vote under the assumption that her rights had been restored under the old law, when in fact they had since been revoked. She was then charged with perjury for registering to vote. A jury acquitted her, agreeing that she had made an honest mistake. After all, there are two conflicting statutes on the books.

Griffin, represented by the ACLU, then sued the state to challenge its automatic disqualification process. Again from the Register:

Terry Brandstad, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Terry Brandstad, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Iowa’s constitution says conviction of an infamous crime automatically strips citizens of the voting right; however, an “infamous crime” has never been well defined. A divided Iowa Supreme Court last year concluded that not all felonies are infamous crimes and that it would define in future cases which felonies qualify.

Griffin’s challenge said her low-level, nonviolent drug conviction is not an infamous crime and she should not have been disenfranchised.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis expects the case to wind up before the Iowa Supreme Court.

There are two separate issues at hand here. First, how much ground does the word “infamous” cover in the state constitution? Broadly defined, it can be read as covering all felonies, but if it is interpreted to mean, say, only violent offenses, then Griffin’s voting rights should never have been taken away in the first place. Second, how is the state supposed to handle the ex-felons who registered and voted in between Vilsack’s law and Brandstad’s executive order? Is it fair, or even legal, to retroactively take voting rights away from someone who has had them restored automatically and committed no subsequent crimes? Did the Brandstad administration make any attempt to notify the felons whose rights were un-restored that they would have to actively petition the state for a right they already had? If not, did they really expect them all to just understand, by some form of civic osmosis, that they weren’t allowed to register to vote anymore?

All this is to say that if denying voting rights to ex-felons wasn’t enough of an undemocratic, immoral policy to being with, the way in which Iowa’s gone about implementing said policy is beyond confusing.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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