Iowa Bucks National Trend Toward Letting Ex-Cons Vote

The state Supreme Court ruled against a former felon who argued for the restoration of her voting rights.

The Iowa state Supreme Court building in Des Moines; Iowa state flag. (Photos: Dennis Macdonald/Getty Images; Getty Images)

Jul 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Thursday morning, the Iowa Supreme Court ensured that the state would stay in an increasingly tiny, exclusive club with Kentucky and Florida. Ruling against a former felon, 42-year-old Kelli Griffin, the court affirmed a district court’s opinion that Iowans with past or current felony convictions are permanently barred from voting. In doing so, the court resisted a national trend toward easing or eliminating criminal disenfranchisement laws.

“It’s an outlier from where the country is,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “This kind of policy doesn’t punish people in a more effective way. It doesn’t make us safer. It just serves to shut out certain voices from our community.”

In the 4–3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that all felonies are considered “infamous crimes” under the state’s constitution, conviction for which eliminates an individual’s right to vote. Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote that the court was “constrained” by the legal interpretation of infamy, which establishes “the community standard expressed by our Legislature and is consistent with the basic standard we have used over the years.” Griffin’s lawsuit had argued that “infamous crimes” should not include all felonies. She was convicted in 2008 of a felony cocaine delivery charge and received a suspended sentence of five years of probation.

Nationally, nearly 6 million people are legally unable to vote because of their criminal record, according to The Sentencing Project. Restrictions on the voting rights of people with criminal records vary widely from state to state, but Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa are home to the most restrictive of such laws, barring any person with a felony conviction from voting for life. The only path to the ballot box for former felons in these states, where the restriction is enshrined in their respective constitutions, comes through a pardon by the governor.

While those three states remain firmly lodged in opposition, others have moved away from punitive voting rights restrictions. This year, Maryland and Virginia passed legislation to restore voting rights for citizens with criminal records. In 2001 and 2007, respectively, Connecticut and Rhode Island expanded the right to vote to people on probation or parole. In Maine and Vermont, even people still in prison can vote, regardless of their offenses.

“There’s increasing bipartisan consensus that people who have paid their debt to society should be able to vote,” voting rights expert and investigative journalist Ari Berman told TakePart.

In some states, that consensus is still the subject of ample resistance. In early June, after restoring voting rights for former felons, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was hit by a lawsuit brought by Republican voters who argued that their “lawful votes will be cancelled out, and their voting power will be diluted, by votes cast by individuals who are not eligible to vote.” In November 2015, former Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear signed an order to restore voting rights to the state’s former felons—but within a month, incoming Gov. Matt Bevin issued an executive order undoing Beshear’s work.

In Iowa, advocates for voting rights are promising to push back against the court’s ruling. “We’ll start working today on a constitutional amendment so that finally, the thousands of Iowans who have completed their sentences can once again be full members of society,” the ACLU of Iowa said in a statement on Thursday.

After serving her probation time, Griffin attempted to vote in the November 2013 election. She believed her voting rights had been restored and was charged with perjury. She was acquitted in 2014 and sued state officials with the ACLU of Iowa several months later.

“I want to be able to cast my vote regarding my children’s school, regarding my community, regarding things that are happening in my life, because they affect me,” said Griffin in a statement Thursday provided to TakePart by the ACLU of Iowa. “People like me want to be productive members of society, so we should be treated that way.”