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to vote under the assumption that her rights had been restored under the old law, when in fact they had since been revoked.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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11 Responses to “Iowa judge rules against voting rights for felons, state Supreme Court expected to weigh in”

  1. Hue-Man says:

    Update on Canadian inmates and voting from the Globe & Mail.

    “Inmates in all provincial jails and federal prisons get a chance to vote Friday [October 9]— always 10 days before an election — in special advance polling stations set up in the institutions.”

    “During his legal battle, the government changed the Elections Act to give the vote to provincial inmates serving sentences of less than two years. And, in 1992, a ruling by the Supreme
    Court cemented voting for all prisoners.

    The high court ruled that “blanket disenfranchisement” was an inappropriate punishment that would not educate prisoners about the values of community and democracy.”

    “Notices are posted in institutions when all elections are called — federal, provincial and municipal. Inmates must register to vote for candidates in their home ridings [=electoral districts], rather than the ridings of their institutions.”

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canadian-inmates-to-vote-this-week-in-federal-election/article26650210/

    And here’s why it would be nearly impossible in the United States (multiply by 10 to get U.S. equivalent: 380,000 vs U.S. prison population of approx 2.3 million)

    “Figures from Elections Canada show voter turnout among prisoners has been steadily increasing, from 25 per cent of 36,000 inmates in 2004 to roughly 45 per cent of 38,000 prisoners in 2011. That’s still lower than the 61 per cent for the country as a whole in 2011.”

  2. Hue-Man says:

    Denying prisoners the vote doesn’t serve any purpose. Where I’m from…

    “Canadians who will be 18 years of age or older on polling day and who are
    in a correctional institution or a federal penitentiary in Canada may vote
    by special ballot in an election or referendum. A staff member in each institution
    is appointed liaison officer and facilitates the process of registering and
    voting. The liaison officer answers questions about the manner of voting
    and helps the electors to register. ”

    http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=vot&dir=bkg&document=ec90545&lang=e

  3. Marla R. Stevens says:

    Nothing except an exceptionally punitive cultural mindset. in fact, not interfering with the franchise in the first place, as does Maine, or immediately restoring it upon release reduces recidivism, which benefits the state in numerous ways — but Iowans are very punitive people as a whole and Iowa Republicans are so much more so that they could accurately be seen as dedicated to cutting off their noses to spite their incredibly spiteful faces. Beyond that, yes, it’s voter suppression that has a strong racist — the Iowan institutional racism is such that, for years, every single male inmate sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile in the state was black — and homophobic bent. Iowans often pass pretty civil rights laws — often at the forefront — but that’s the work of some do-gooders who trade on the fact that Iowans like to hide from their ugly underbellies — even from themselves.

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  5. rogerclegg says:

    I can’t speak to the specific facts and ruling in this case, but I do want to take issue with the last sentence of this op-ed: “denying voting rights to ex-felons wasn’t enough of an undemocratic, immoral policy to being [sic] with ….” I don’t think that denying voting rights to people who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens is “undemocratic” or “immoral.” To the contrary, if you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website
    here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-challenges-to-felon-disenfranchisement ] and our congressional testimony here: [
    http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf ]

  6. 2karmanot says:

    Fortunately, Pope Putz is in retreat after St. Kimi was canonize in private.

  7. Zorba says:

    Well, he should certainly know, if he’s elected. :-(

  8. nicho says:

    And Ben Carson said today — without a hint of irony — that “Hitler could happen here.”

  9. nicho says:

    Just all-around mean-spiritedness. That’s the GOP way.

  10. Hue-Man says:

    Other than the obvious (Democratic) voter suppression aspect, I fail to understand what government objective is served by denying prisoners and ex-cons the right to vote.

  11. Indigo says:

    I’d like to see that case go all the way to the Roberts’ Court. We have similiarly draconian restrictions here in Florida that a US Supreme Court could/should easily over-rule. The Iowa case seems straightforward enough that a ruling in favor of restoring voting rights would apply to Kentucky and Florida as well. Hopefully, the Pope will not intervene.

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