After losing in Supreme Court, Iowa felons turn to legislature in search of voting rights

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Posted: Aug 23, 2016 11:34 AM
After losing in Supreme Court, Iowa felons turn to legislature in search of voting rights

Kelli Jo Griffin took her four children to the voting booth in 2013 to teach them the value of democracy. Little did she know, she was breaking the law.

Earlier that year, Griffin, 42, came off probation for delivering less than a hundred grams of cocaine. When she was convicted in 2008, she lost her right to vote.

Felonies in Iowa are “infamous crimes” that immediately result in voting restrictions because they involve offenses of “moral turpitude.” Currently 56,500 felons are unable to vote in Iowa; only 7,400 of those are still in prison.

“I’m a low-level felon, my crime was not against a person,” Griffin told Watchdog.

Photo: Veronica Fowler/ACLU

COURT SAYS NO: Convicted felon Kelli Jo Griffin stands on the steps of the Iowa Supreme Court, where justices ruled against her attempt to reclaim her voting rights.

Griffin’s lawyer informed her in 2008 that under the policy in place at that time, she would be able to vote again in 2013 upon completion of her probation.

An executive order issued on July 4, 2005, by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to disenfranchised felons who had completed their sentences and been discharged from parole. Over the next six years, 115,000 felons regained the right to vote in the Hawkeye State.

Vilsack’s Republican successor, Terry Branstad, rescinded the order on his first day back in office in 2011. He had previously served as governor from 1983 to 1999.

On average, about 20 applications a year have been approved since Branstad reclaimed the governor’s office. In 2015, 25 people applied for restoration of voting rights in the first three and a half months alone, but he only granted 17 requests the entire year. (A request for the full year’s number of requests went unanswered by the governor’s office.)

Griffin said she did not know about the changed policy when she walked into her local voting center in Montrose, Iowa, tucked into the southeast corner of Iowa, across the Mississippi River from the onetime Mormon Zion of Nauvoo. A few weeks after the election, police arrested her for voter fraud and charged her with perjury. A jury later acquitted her of the charges, but she decided to challenge the law that a nonviolent crime could be considered “infamous,” a designation that carries with it — among other things — loss of the right to vote.

The ACLU took the issue to court on behalf of Griffin in 2014.

In Griffin v. Pate, the Iowa Supreme Court decided in a 4-3 decision that under the Iowa Constitution, a non-violent felony is an infamous crime.

The loss disheartened Griffin and 20,000 other felons whose voting rights hung in the balance. Griffin said she was “devastated” by the decision. “I thought I had a good chance of winning. I appreciate the judges for hearing my case.”

Griffin said she voted in elections before her arrest, and growing up with a father in law enforcement gave her an appreciation of how elections can affect her family’s livelihood.

“We’re parents picking out school board members,” she said. “I had to give up that right because of my past. I should be able to vote for people who govern my children’s school.”

Back to the legislature

In his 44 page majority decision, Chief Justice Mark Cady explained that it is up to the legislature to amend the current law to allow non-violent felons to vote.

“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,” Cady wrote.

The ACLU plans to push for that, according to Veronica Fowler, the communications director for the Iowa ACLU, told Watchdog.

“In my opinion, the majority ruling seems to invite the General Assembly to amend current Iowa Code to redefine ‘infamous crime’ for purposes of disenfranchisement as something other than all felonies,” state Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, told the Des Moines Register. “I certainly think the average Iowan would not agree that all felonies, every category of felonies, reaches the level of infamous crimes.”

Wolfe argues that felonies such as repeated drunk-driving arrests and drug-possession should not be considered infamous crimes.

Arlene Victor, a 31 year volunteer for the Dubuque, Iowa Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, takes exception to that, at least as far as drunk driving is concerned.

“It’s a serious crime. It should be taken seriously,” Victor told Watchdog.org. “A time period should be considered [for voting]. They are [potential] murderers, and their weapon is a vehicle instead of a gun.”

Wolfe and other legislators are making the issue a priority, and mothers like Victor and Griffin will both be watching.

“People who complete probation should have a right to vote,” Griffin told Watchdog. “I think that if you do all that is required of you should have your right to vote restored. Once I completed my probation they told me I was a productive member of society. Voting is being a productive member of society.”