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Iowa Supreme Court considers felon voting rights
DES MOINES - Iowa Supreme Court justices were asked Wednesday to narrowly interpret what constitutes an 'infamous crime” that would cause a citizen convicted of the criminal act to lose their voting rights.
Attorneys representing a southeast Iowa woman who ran afoul of state voting laws due to a drug-related conviction argued the high court should ease Iowa's tough disenfranchisement laws that makes it difficult for offenders to get their voting rights restored once they've been convicted of a felony.
The case could have implications for thousands of convicted Iowa felons, depending on how the court rules.
Rita Bettis, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said removing the right to vote should be based upon offenses that pose an affront to democratic governance, such as treason, perjury, bribery of a public official, acceptance of bribes or corruption by a public official or embezzlement of public funds rather than a sweeping interpretation that makes all felony convictions disqualifying.
In the case of Kelli Jo Griffin, who was the subject of Wednesday's court proceedings, she had discharged her sentence related to a drug-related felony offense but later was determined to be ineligible to vote because she had not gone through an administrative process to get her right restored.
'We argue that by the nature of her offense, she has not been disqualified by virtue of committing an infamous offense,” Bettis told the seven-justice panel during oral arguments Wednesday.
'Mrs. Griffin has fully discharged her sentence of probation following conviction for a non-violent drug delivery offense. Yet under the laws and policies that we are challenging, she remains barred from her fundamental right to vote,” Bettis added. 'The right to vote is incredibly meaningful and important to her and she poses no threat to the integrity of our system of government through elections.”
However, attorneys representing the Iowa Secretary of State and county auditors argued that laws 'draw lines everywhere” and felony convictions have become the dividing line for establishing voting rights in Iowa based on constitutional and case law.
'Our criminal justice system definitely changes and evolves,” said Jeffrey Thompson of the Iowa Attorney General's Office. 'All felonies are infamous crimes but all infamous crimes aren't felonies.”
During Wednesday's roughly 75-minute hearing, justices and attorneys engaged in back-and-forth discussions of problems associated with defining what constitutes an 'infamous crime” in deciding voter eligibility, with Justice David Wiggins asking: 'How are 99 independently elected auditors going to do that and be consistent because we don't want people voting in one county precluded from voting in another county.”
Justice Brent Appel said the issue pivots on argument that 'zoom in on” the meaning of three words - 'any infamous crime.”
'What can you do to breathe life into these very vague words - any infamous crime?” he asked. 'It doesn't jump out and tell you exactly what it means obviously. We need to make some choices here.
Coty Montag, an attorney with the Washington-based NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, pointed to Iowa's disproportionate percentage of African Americans who have been negatively impacted by Iowa's felon disenfranchisement policy. She said her organization would like to see a nexus between electoral issues and criminal convictions when deciding voter disenfranchisement and 'we would support currently incarcerated individuals having the right to vote by absentee ballot.”