Iowa’s highest court on Thursday refused to restore voting rights to more than 20,000 of the state’s ex-felons, ruling that the state constitution allows the disenfranchisement of people convicted of “infamous crimes.”
The state Supreme Court ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argued the lawsuit on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, an Iowa woman who was charged with perjury for attempting to vote in a 2013 municipal election with a low-level drug charge on her record.
“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,” the court’s majority said in its opinion.
Iowa is one of three states with the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws. The state constitution revokes voting rights for life from anyone who has committed what it calls an “infamous crime,” a vague phrase that includes all felons, from low-level drug offenders to those who have committed more serious, violent crimes. The ACLU argued before the state Supreme Court that most felons have not committed an “infamous crime.”
The 4–3 ruling split along partisan lines, with the four judges appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad providing the majority and the three judges appointed by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack dissenting. In 2005, Vilsack issued an order which restored the right to vote to felons who had been disqualified in the state, a total of 110,000 people at the time. But in January 2011, newly elected Branstad issued an executive order reversing Vilsack’s action.
While Monday’s ruling was a loss for civil rights advocates, it did leave the term “infamous crime” up for interpretation in the future.
“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,” the court said.
ACLU Legal Director Rita Bettis told ThinkProgress in March, when she argued the case before the Supreme Court, that “this case is very important, not just for Kelli, but potentially for the six percent of Iowans who can expect to get a felony conviction and under the law, face lifetime disenfranchisement.”
Bettis said that the ACLU sought, and the court granted, expedited review so that the case can be resolved by the end of the Supreme Court term this month — before the November presidential election. But Monday’s decision will not change the voting rights of 20,000 Iowans who are currently disenfranchised due to .
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of Griffin, who was convicted in 2008 and served a period of probation for delivering a small amount of cocaine. In 2013, after she had completed her sentence, she took her four children with her to the polls to vote in a local election. A few weeks later, Griffin learned that a state Division of Criminal Investigation officer had decided to press charges against her for perjury because of her drug charge.
Griffin faced jail time, but was ultimately acquitted of voter fraud by a jury. She told ThinkProgress last year that at the time of the trial, she feared that she was going to be taken away from her children.
The suit also asked for an injunction barring the state from bringing criminal charges against Iowans with past lower-level felony offenses who register to vote. But the court also declined to grant that injunction.
Bettis said in March that the decision in Iowa had the possibility to “change the national landscape on felon disenfranchisement” because it would leave just two states with permanent bans. But Monday’s ruling means that Iowa will remain with Florida and Kentucky on the list of states that ban felons from voting unless they complete a burdensome restoration process.
While Iowa will not be extending voting rights before the November election, other states have made efforts to restore people’s civil rights. In April, Virginia extended voting rights to roughly 200,000 former felons. That change came through an executive order signed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, which Republicans have already challenged in court. Before that order, he had also loosened the state’s permanent disenfranchisement restrictions and made it possible for thousands of Virginians with non-violent drug convictions to have their rights automatically restored.
“Virginia will no longer build walls and barriers to the ballot box. We will take them down,” McAuliffe said when he signed the executive order.