Infamous or Not? Iowa Supreme Court to Consider Landmark Case on Felon Disenfranchisement

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Today, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear a case seeking to redefine how the state treats the voting rights of individuals convicted of felonies. The Des Moines Register has more:

More than 20,000 Iowa felons could be poised to regain their voting rights as part of a landmark case that will be heard Wednesday by the state Supreme Court.

Iowa justices will hear arguments in the case of a southeast Iowa woman who is challenging the Iowa law that permanently strips felons of their voting rights. Kelli Jo Griffin, 42, was convicted in 2008 of a felony cocaine delivery charge and had completed her sentence when she took her children in November 2013 to watch her vote in a municipal election, only to be charged with perjury for voting as a felon.

A ruling in favor of Griffin and her lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa could radically alter what critics have long argued is one of the nation’s harshest felon disenfranchisement laws. But county prosecutors and auditors fear that such a ruling will make a mess of election procedures statewide.

 

Felon disenfranchisement has been a moving target in Iowa for a while, due to sharp partisan differences on how it should be applied:

The oral arguments are in many ways the climax of a decade-long debate over voting rights in Iowa that has played out in both the legal and political arenas.

It began during the second term of former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who signed an executive order in 2005 creating an automatic process to restore voting rights to more than 115,000 ex-offenders who had completed their sentences.

The order was cheered by lawmakers and advocates from minority communities who had suffered the brunt of the longstanding felon disenfranchisement law.

Black Iowans in 2005 were being sent to prison at a rate 13 times higher than whites, according to data from the Sentencing Project.

“It is long overdue,” Iowa Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, then a Des Moines School Board member, said when the order was announced. “This step is historical for Iowa.”

But Republicans criticized Vilsack’s order as a cynical move to boost Democratic voter registrations.

“This is exactly the kind of mixed signal that waters down Iowa’s tough-on-crime reputation,” former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants told The Des Moines Register in June 2005.

In 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad took office and immediately rescinded Vilsack’s order. Branstad replaced it with his own case-by-case system for restoring voting rights if a felon applies.

Aides for the Republican governor argued that voting rights should be earned and that ex-offenders should have to pay back court costs and restitution.

That change has led to some confusion, as some people who were told their rights would be restored under the old order were charged with illegally voted once the policy changed again. One of them, Kelli Jo Griffin, is the plaintiff in today’s case:

When Griffin was sentenced to probation for a felony cocaine delivery charge in 2008, her defense attorney told her she’d get back her voting rights automatically after she finished her sentence. That information was true at the time, but it changed when Branstad issued his own executive order in 2011, according to a brief filed in the case from the ACLU of Iowa.

Griffin, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was acquitted of the perjury charge at a March 2014 trial after she testified that she had no idea about the change in Iowa’s law on felon voters, according to the Associated Press.

Attorneys with the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit later that year against the Iowa Secretary of State and Lee County auditor seeking to get Griffin’s voting rights restored, setting up the issue to be decided by the Supreme Court.

The key question in the case is how to define an “infamous crime” as laid out in the state Constitution:

The seven justices will wrestle with one central legal question over all other public policy concerns: They will have to figure out exactly what the framers of the Iowa Constitution meant when they took away voting rights from people convicted of an “infamous crime,” said Ryan Koopmans, an independent attorney who blogs about Iowa appellate law.

Because the term “infamous crime” doesn’t lend itself to a strict definition, Griffin’s case may not be the last trying to determine who can and cannot vote in Iowa, Koopmans and others said.

That definition has divided local officials, with two statewide associations arguing for maintaining the “bright line” that all felonies should be considered infamous crimes:

[B]oth the Iowa County Attorneys Association and Iowa State Association of Counties, which represents auditors across the state, urge the justices not to make any changes to the felon disenfranchisement rule.

Replacing Iowa’s current rule with a legal standard will be confusing to election officials and volunteers, Kristi Harshbarger, an attorney representing the association of counties, wrote in a brief.

“County auditors cannot be expected to determine at polling places if a crime is one that is ‘particularly serious’ and a crime that ‘reveals that voters who commit the crime would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance through elections,'” Harshbarger wrote. “The court needs to consider the practical realities of conducting elections and institute a bright-line test.”

But some election officials in urban jurisdictions don’t agree that the only workable “bright line” should be that broad. Polk County (Des Moines) Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald filed his own friend of the court brief, as described in the Bleeding Heartland blog:

About 14 percent of all registered voters in Iowa live in Polk County, containing the city of Des Moines and most of its suburbs. Census data indicate that the Des Moines metro is “Iowa’s fastest-growing urban area.” So if the Iowa Supreme Court changes the standard for “infamous crimes” that bar citizens from voting, no public official will be more affected than Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald [who will get five minutes to argue before the Court – DMCj] filed a separate “friend of the court” brief, stating his interest in the Griffin case as follows:

The Proposed Amicus is directly responsible for the management of the election process for roughly 270,500 Iowa voters. The outcome of this action will significantly impact the Auditor’s ability to serve as chief election officer for Polk County, Iowa, and to execute his duties in that role. The Proposed Amicus’ position also clarifies that the positions articulated by other Amici ISAC [Iowa State Association of Counties] and ICAA [Iowa County Attorneys Association] are not ubiquitous among relevant election administrators.

In particular, Fitzgerald’s position (which was endorsed by Johnson County’s Travis Weipert and others – see the end of the post) is that ease of administration is not the only goal:

Ease of election administration is not the most important concern of a county auditor. The most important concern of the Auditor as commissioner of elections is ensuring that qualified Iowa voters can access the ballot… 

[I]t’s easy to conceive of a similar database that disqualifies based on conviction of specific felonies rather than all felonies, which would likely be easier to administer, if anything, because fewer disqualifying offenses will mean thousands fewer disqualified Iowans on the list to begin with …

Facilitating voting by those persons is not an administrative burden any more than the myriad other provisions that county auditors and poll-workers must contend with. Certainly, it is not insurmountable. Moreover, the Amicus Auditor Fitzgerald welcomes the privilege of facilitating the elections in Polk County in a manner which reverses course on 100 years of faulty disenfranchisement and allows all those qualified to participate in our democracy.

In short, both sides seem to agree that a bright line is needed, but don’t see eye-to-eye on whether it’s the most important consideration – and, moreover, where to draw it.

This is a fascinating case which will force the Court to confront textual questions as well as those of equity and administrability – not to mention resolving one of the hottest-button partisan issues in election policy in the state’s recent history. As other states with strict disenfranchisement policies (e.g. Kentucky, Virginia) move to revise those approaches the Iowa case could be significant beyond the Hawkeye State.

Stay tuned …

1 Comment on "Infamous or Not? Iowa Supreme Court to Consider Landmark Case on Felon Disenfranchisement"

  1. Laforest Sherman | April 2, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Reply

    Our right to vote is of our most important rights and should be defended as vigorously as any other constitional right. Theft of that right for partisan gain should be a felony and legislation disinfranchizing citizens should be unconstitutional.

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