Iowa Supreme Court Delivers Voting Rights Setback

By Pat Rynard

June 30, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court delivered a major blow this morning to the efforts to extend voting rights to people convicted of felonies. In a 4-3 decision, the court upheld an appeals court decision that all felonies fall under the “infamous crimes” definition, thus preventing them from having their voting rights restored without a special restoration from the Governor. Read the entire decision here.

In a short majority opinion, Chief Justice Cady wrote that Kelli Jo Griffin’s felony conviction for delivery of a controlled substance does count as an “infamous crime,” and that it disqualified her from voting in Iowa. However, he also indicated that he felt it wasn’t the Supreme Court’s place to determine which crimes constituted an “infamous crime” and which did not:

Constrained, as we must be, by our role in government, we conclude our constitution permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship. This conclusion is not to say the infamous-crime provision of our constitution would not accommodate a different meaning in the future. A different meaning, however, is not for us to determine in this case. A new definition will be up to the future evolution of our understanding of voter disqualification as a society, revealed through the voices of our democracy.

During arguments in the case, several of the justices seemed to struggle with the implications of their potential ruling. Something had to be defined as “infamous crime,” but would they have to go through and pick and choose from every potential crime? And how would individual county auditors sort that out when former felons came to register to vote? The ACLU and others argued that the court could restrict “infamous crimes” to only those involving elections or public corruption.

But Cady didn’t appear comfortable with doing so, and seemed to hit the ball back to the Legislature’s side. He seems to prefer lawmakers write up their own rules for which crimes to exclude from causing a person to lose their voting rights. At that point it seems some more of the court’s members would be open to allowing the change.

Justices Waterman, Mansfield and Zager joined Cady’s opinion.

Justice Wiggins, in his dissent, strongly disagreed with that notion:

Additionally, the majority’s analysis is flawed in that it does not truly consider the consensus among other states, most of which allow at least certain felons to vote. By focusing solely on our cruel-and-unusual- punishment jurisprudence to arrive at its conclusion, the majority’s incomplete analysis gives short shrift to a matter concerning individual rights. Its approach represents a stark retreat from the robust analysis of individual rights under the Iowa Constitution this court traditionally applies.

Interestingly, Justice Wiggins also noted that he opposed the original Chiodo ruling for two reasons: that he felt the court did have the responsibility to determine the law, and that he was also concerned about individual election officials’ ability to navigate a system where some felons could vote and some could not. It seems Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald’s argument to the court was able to change his mind:

More importantly, the brief of the Polk County Auditor has caused me to reevaluate my thoughts on this issue. The Polk County Auditor administers the election in the largest and most diverse county in the state. In his brief, he states that under a protocol similar to that urged by Justices Appel and Hecht, he would be able to implement and administer a policy that would ensure all persons with prior felony convictions who were eligible to vote could do so.

Justice Hecht added his own dissenting opinion as well, arguing that the main point of the case was whether Griffin’s crime was cause for losing her rights or not:

The notion that allowing Griffin to vote will render the ballot box impure, disrupt the electoral process, or damage institutions of democratic governance is fanciful at best.

He then wrote an extensive section on how denying these rights has a negative impact on society and the democratic process:

Disenfranchisement of noninfamous felons also tends to depress the votes of others. The propensity of young people to vote is correlated with their parents’ behavior and resources … When disproportionate numbers of citizens in the same community are denied the right to vote, the political power of the community’s residents—including those who have never been convicted of a crime—is weakened … I am persuaded that disenfranchising persons convicted of noninfamous offenses has other deleterious social consequences. It is a component of the “otherness” observed by one commentator, promoting a separation between community members and law enforcement officers.

Secretary of State Paul Pate, on the other hand, hailed the ruling of which he was the appellee in a statement:

“I applaud the Iowa Supreme Court in their analysis that felonies are infamous crimes, and therefore, felons lose their voting privileges as outlined in the Iowa Constitution. This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedence and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions.

“I took an oath to uphold the Iowa Constitution and the laws of our state. That is what I will continue to do and that is what the Iowa Supreme Court did in this case. I agree with Chief Justice Cady, who wrote that the term “infamous crime” was generally recognized to include felonies at the time our Constitution was adopted, and that meaning has not sufficiently changed or evolved to give rise to a different meaning today. My office will continue to work to preserve the integrity and fairness of Iowa elections and strive to help and encourage every eligible Iowan to participate in the electoral process.” – Paul Pate, Iowa Secretary of State

Some members of the Legislature already are looking at changing the laws regarding felony voting rights, seeing some positive news out of the court’s decision:

Iowa Democratic Party chair Andy McGuire sent out her reaction as well:

“Today’s Iowa Supreme Court decision to uphold Iowa’s ban on voting rights for felons was extremely disappointing and keeps Iowa on the extreme fringe of voter disenfranchisement. It is shameful that revoking felons’ rights was one of Gov. Branstad’s first actions after being sworn in as Governor in 2011. As Democrats we believe in expanding the opportunity to vote, not limiting it. The restoration of voting rights can help facilitate rehabilitation, reduce recidivism and foster a smoother transition back into ordinary life. A lifetime ban shames people and is not a productive practice for our state. We hope that Ms. Griffin and the Iowa ACLU will continue the fight to enfranchise voters and allow Iowan citizens, including those who have paid their debt to society, a chance to choose their leaders.”

This post will updated throughout the day with other statements and reactions.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 6/30/16

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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