Iowa Supreme Court Preserves Voting Rights For Some Former Offenders

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A case before the Iowa Supreme Court this week that could have disenfranchised as many as 50,000 Iowa voters instead opened the door to potential future expansions of the franchise. In a 5-1 splintered opinion, the court ruled that the state constitution presumptively does not bar any individuals convicted of misdemeanor offenses from voting, and may even allow some with felony convictions to vote.

The ruling comes out of a challenge on a different issue by state senate primary candidate Ned Chiodo. Chiodo sought to disqualify his opponent, Tony Bisignano, because of drunken driving offenses on his record. Iowa law bars those from running for office who have committed “infamous crimes.” The court ruled that drunken driving was not an infamous crime, but in the process it shifted a century of precedent on voting rights for ex-offenders. The state’s constitution also bars those with an “infamous crime” conviction from voting, unless their voting rights are restored by the governor.

The state has typically equated infamous crimes with felonies for the purpose of voting law. But past rulings have defined “infamous crimes” as any crime that carries a penalty of jail time. The high court panel outright rejected that understanding, reasoning that the Constitution also intends to encourage voting except in the most extreme instances:

Considering the crime at the center of this case, we need not conclusively articulate a precise definition of “infamous crime” at this time. We only conclude that the crime must be classified as particularly serious, and it must be a crime that reveals that voters who commit the crime would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance through elections.

The majority opinion added that the decision “leave[s] it for future cases to decide which felonies might fall within the meaning of ‘infamous crime[s]’ that disqualify Iowans from voting,” suggesting that future plaintiffs could actually establish many felony crimes are not “serious” enough to warrant disenfranchisement. Two justices lamented in a concurring opinion that this standard is too imprecise, and would instead draw a bright line between felonies and misdemeanors.

Iowa is one of four states that bans all felons from voting unless they receive clemency from the governor. In 2005, former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) issued an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to all felons who had completed their sentence. But When Gov. Terry Brandstad (R) took office, he reversed this policy, once again requiring an application to the governor that includes a credit check. Since Brandstad’s policy went into effect, some 8,000 Iowans have completed their felony sentences but only 12 have had their rights restored. The provision, meanwhile, is breeding confusion among former offenders and bureaucrats. Data released Friday revealed that Iowa disenfranchised at least 12 legitimate voters because of mistakes maintaining the felon database, and Secretary of State Matt Schultz said the data is so “filled with so many inaccuracies that it could take years to fix.”

In remarks calling for an end to felon disenfranchisement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directly took on Brandstad’s policy, saying, “That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”