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Iowa Supreme Court Upholds Automatic Disenfranchisement for all Felony Convictions

by Matt Clarke

In a June 30, 2016 opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court held that all felonies were “infamous crimes” under the voter disqualification provision of the state’s constitution.

Kelli Jo Griffin was convicted of the class C felony of delivery of 100 grams or less of cocaine in 2008. At that time, Executive Order 42, which had been signed by then-Governor Thomas J. Vilsack, was in effect. The order restored the voting rights of persons who were convicted of a felony but had completely discharged their criminal sentence, including any terms of probation, parole or post-release supervision. Griffin’s attorney told her that she would have her right to vote automatically reinstated when she completed parole.

In 2011, then-Governor Terry E. Branstad signed Executive Order 70, which rescinded Executive Order 42. Unaware of that development, Griffin registered to vote and then voted after she completed her parole term in 2013. She was charged with perjury for registering and voting, but acquitted by a jury.

Griffin filed a petition in state court for a declaration that her offense did not disqualify her from voting and that state voter registration laws which exclude felons who have not had their rights restored violate due process. The court rejected her claims and she appealed.

The Supreme Court of Iowa engaged in a lengthy analysis of the concept of infamy going back to ancient Greece and Rome, paying special attention to what the term meant in 1848, when the current Iowa Constitution was adopted. It also gave a great deal of deference to Iowa Code § 39.3(8), a statute passed by the state legislature in 1995, which defined an infamous crime as any felony. The Court then held that any felony offense constituted an “infamous crime.”

Article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution provides that “a person adjudicated mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.” Thus, the constitution disenfranchises any person convicted of a felony. Accordingly, Griffin’s due process claim was deemed moot.

The state Supreme Court noted that “no national consensus has emerged to define infamous crime either more broadly or more narrowly than our legislature,” even if the courts of some states, such as California, Colorado, Delaware and Indiana, have specifically rejected the concept of all felonies being infamous crimes. The Court acknowledged that felony disenfranchisement has a disproportionate effect on African-Americans, but held it was not adopted or passed with the intent of discriminating against minority groups.

“This ruling means that Iowa will continue to serve as a notorious outlier when it comes to restricting people’s right to vote,” said ACLU Voting Rights Project attorney Julie Ebenstein.

The ACLU had argued that disenfranchisement should be limited to crimes that are an “affront to democratic governance,” such as treason and corruption. The dissenting state Supreme Court justices in the 4-3 ruling agreed. See: Griffin v. Pate, 884 N.W.2d 182 (Iowa 2016).

According to an October 2016 news report, a coalition of 17 organizations in Iowa has been formed to advocate for legislation to protect the voting rights of former prisoners convicted of nonviolent felonies. Members of the coalition include the ACLU of Iowa, the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Iowa, Iowa CURE and the Iowa Justice Action Network.

The Des Moines Register cited “an ACLU/Human Rights Watch report released earlier in October that found black Iowans are seven times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white Iowans – the second worst rate of disparity in the U.S.”

It is estimated that 50,000 Iowa residents are unable to vote due to felony convictions; voting rights are presently restored on a case-by-case basis, which requires approval by the governor’s office. 


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Related legal case

Griffin v. Pate