Iowa high court upholds felony voting ban. Why is that unusual?

The Iowa Supreme Court voted 4-3 to uphold a system that would strip convicted felons of their right to vote unless it is restored by the governor, moving against a growing trend.

Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP/File
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., in April. On Thursday, the Iowa Supreme Court went in the other direction, ruling in a 4-3 decision to uphold a law that automatically strips convicted felons of voting rights unless they are approved by the state's governor.

As the pendulum on voting rights for convicted felons appears to swing toward enfranchisement, Iowa's Supreme Court made a move in the other direction on Thursday, upholding a law that would automatically strip felons of their right to vote for life unless it was restored by the state's governor.

The 4-3 decision would permanently disenfranchise thousands of former offenders. Democrats and civil-liberties advocates condemned the decision, while election officials said the court’s ruling was in line with Iowa’s Constitution.

"This ruling means that Iowa will continue to serve as a notorious outlier when it comes to restricting people's right to vote," Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, told the Associated Press.

Over the last two decades, some 800,000 Americans have regained their right to vote as nearly two dozen states have eased restrictions on felons' voting rights, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for prison reform.

But Paul Pate, who oversees elections as Iowa's Secretary of State, applauded the decision. "This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedence and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions," he said in a statement, according to the Des Moines Register.

The issue has been seized upon by politicians from both parties. In recent months, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, restored voting rights to thousands of felons who have completed their sentences, angering Republicans who have vowed to fight his action in court. Last year in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin rolled back an executive order by his Democratic predecessor that had restored voting rights for people who had served time for nonviolent crimes.

In the Iowa case, the divided court had to interpret a clause in the state’s constitution that dates to 1857. “No person convicted of any infamous crime shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector,” it says.

The ACLU, which challenged an executive order by Gov. Terry Branstad requiring felons to apply to get their rights back, brought the case on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, who was convicted of a nonviolent drug offense. Ms. Griffin, the group had argued, had not committed an “infamous” crime and shouldn’t lose her voting rights.

The group said the court should rule bar voting rights only for people whose crimes are an “affront to democratic governance,” such as treason and corruption, the Associated Press reports.

The court, led by Chief Justice Mark Cady, seemed to agree with that approach in a 2014 case, writing that only crimes that are serious and related to the integrity of elections should be considered infamous. But Thursday’s decision apparently reversed course, noting that Iowa’s constitution originated from common law that typically regarded all felonies as infamous.

In 1994, he noted, Iowa lawmakers had also passed a law that defined felonies as infamous crimes, and hadn’t changed the standard since.

“The legislative judgment was clearly expressed, and there is no scientific evidence or facts to undermine that judgment,” Cady wrote.

Governor Branstad has defended the system he put in place upon taking office in 2011, while he has also attempted to make the application process easier, the AP reports.

Some say such case-by-case approvals are necessary. “A better approach is to wait some period of time to ensure that the felon has actually turned over a new leaf,” Roger Clegg, president and general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, wrote in a New York Times column in April.

But the three dissenting justices argued that the decision would continue a system that treats felons as second-class citizens and disproportionately limits the political power of the state’s African American population, echoing an argument Governor McAuliffe had made in Virginia.

Advocates have frequently pointed to the discriminatory impact of efforts to bar felons from voting. Such laws “are an anti-democratic tool with a sordid history of discrimination,” Janai S. Nelson, associate director-counsel at the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote in a Times column.

“Today, they intersect with the profound racial disparities in the US Criminal justice system to keep one out of every 13 African Americans from voting,” she added.

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