Iowa got it wrong -- again. The Iowa Supreme Court recently upheld a state law preventing felons from voting unless their rights are restored by the governor. The court ruled in a split 4-3 decision that all felonies (in this case delivery of a controlled substance) fall under the “infamous crime” voter disenfranchisement provision of the state’s Constitution.
It is our belief that once a person serves their sentence, and has discharged their debt to society, they should regain their voting privileges. But that’s not how it works in Iowa which is one of just three states in the nation which imposes permanent penalties for people with felony convictions, unless the government approves restoration of rights. In Iowa that means petitioning the governor.
“The district court held the crime is an infamous crime, and a conviction thereof disqualifies persons from voting in Iowa,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the court’s opinion. “Following the analysis we have used in the past to interpret provisions of our constitution, we agree and affirm the judgment of the district court.”
The ruling, with one broad stroke, confirmed that the ill-defined “infamous crime” should be defined as any felony.
It hasn’t always been that way. In July 2005, former Gov. Tom Vilsack issued Executive Order 42 which restored voting rights to those who had already completed sentences for felony convictions and provided for ongoing restoration for those completing sentences.
Then in January 2011, shortly after taking office, Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded Executive Order 42, returning Iowa to the practice of permanent loss of voting rights. In April 2016, Gov. Branstad announced a simplification of the process. Which brings us to Griffin vs. Pate.
Kelli Jo Griffin, an Iowa mother who lost her right to vote after a 2008 cocaine charge, challenged whether her non-violent drug felony met the Iowa Constitution's definition of an "infamous crime."
Justices questions the gathered lawyers to try and determine which crimes should be categorized as infamous. The standard would ultimately determine how many convicted criminals could regain the right to vote. As many as 57,000 Iowans are identified as disenfranchised felons.
"What can you do to breathe life into these very vague words, 'any infamous crime?'" Justice Brent Appel asked. "It doesn't jump out and tell you exactly what it means, and obviously we need to make some choices here."
Gary Dickey argued on behalf of Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald who is in favor of letting most felons vote. He said that elections could be smoothly administered if the secretary of state worked closely with prison officials to track people convicted of crimes considered infamous.
Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, urged justices to follow a standard which would only bar felons convicted of crimes deemed an "affront to democratic governance." Such crimes as embezzlement of public funds, bribery of a public official or corruption are considered infamous, she argued.
Muscatine County attorney Alan Ostergren, president of the Iowa County Attorney's Association, argued that keeping all felonies as infamous crimes is important for clarity. Mr. Ostergren further argued that any changes to Iowa's felon disenfranchisement law should be made by legislators, not the courts.
At this point, the legislative route seems the most prudent way to pursue a fair solution and eliminate or clarify the vague wording in the state’s Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that voting is one of the most cherished rights and preserving that should come before concerns over administration, Mr. Dickey argued. We couldn’t agree more. Barring felons from voting after they have completed the term to which they were sentenced not only seems unfair but un-American. 47 states agree.