Given the opportunity to restore voting rights to thousands of Iowans, a narrow majority of justices on the Iowa Supreme Court opted instead to punt. That’s disappointing.
Iowa’s highest court, split 4-3, concluded all felony offenses are “infamous crimes” under the Iowa Constitution, which prohibits anyone convicted of those crimes from voting. Unwilling to interpret and clarify constitutional vagueness, the court relied on a 1994 legislative statute defining infamous crimes as felonies.
The ruling came in the case of a southeast Iowa woman convicted of a Class C felony drug crime who lost her right to vote. Hopes the court would use her case to sensibly rein in Iowa’s overly broad voting ban were dashed.
“In this case, the legislative judgment was clearly expressed, and there is no scientific evidence or facts to undermine that judgment,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the majority opinion. ”It will be up to our future democracy to give the necessary voice to the issue and engage in the debate that advances democracy.”
But we agree with Justice Daryl Hecht, who dissented from Thursday’s ruling, writing: “Our scrutiny must ... confront the hard question of whether there is a compelling governmental interest in disenfranchising her for drug-related offenses. In my view, there is not.”
Our elected leaders, as Hecht insists, should offer a far better explanation for why Iowa must remain only one of three states that permanently disenfranchises felons who have served their sentences, unless they successfully apply for restoration of rights. Disdain for criminals, tradition and good politics simply don’t make a compelling case. Where is the evidence of public benefit, or of crimes deterred?
The harm is clearer. As Justice Brent Appel mentions in a separate dissent, roughly 25 percent of black males in Iowa are disenfranchised by the felon voting ban, an exclusion rate more than triple the national average. For all the talk about troubling racial disparities haunting justice in Iowa, here is a place where our leaders could take swift action.
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Gov. Tom Vilsack used his executive power to grant automatic rights restoration to felons who completed their sentences. But Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the policy on his first day back in office, forcing felons to apply and wait. The governor has simplified the process, but thousands remain unable to vote.
The Legislature should redefine “infamous crimes” to include offenses that actually threaten the integrity of voting and elections. At the very least, Branstad should return to Vilsack’s policy. The “future democracy” Cady wrote of should come now.
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