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Felon Voting Has Day In Court

Iowa Public Radio / Sarah Boden
Iowa ACLU attorney Rita Bettis and Kelli Griffin.

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether it violates the state’s constitution to permanently ban people with felony convictions from voting. 

The constitution states anyone who commits an “infamous crime,” forever loses the right to vote, though the text offers little context as to what makes a crime "infamous."

The case originates in Lee County, where Kelli Griffin voted in an uncontested 2013 municipal election. Griffin has a class C felony conviction for delivering 100 grams of cocaine, but was not aware this prohibited her from voting. She was tried and acquitted of voter fraud in 2014.

Rita Bettis, attorney for the Iowa ACLU, argues only crimes that violate democratic governance—like perjury or treason—should be considered infamous. This definition would re-enfranchise thousands of Iowans.

The State of Iowa says the term “infamous crime” has always applied to all felonies.

"You can interpret your case law, the constitution, and the statutory scheme in a way that is cohesive by holding that line," says Solicitor General Jeff Thompson. "It also has the side benefit of being predictable, and manageable." 

Bettis and Thompson also sparred on whether the Supreme Court should be defining the term "infamous crime." Thompson argued since crimes are defined by statutes, it is the legislature’s job. 

"Voters should be able to choose their representatives. Representatives shouldn’t be able to choose their voters," says Bettis. "I think that principle is ingrained in our constitution, and has been since the very beginning."

The ACLU estimates that with Iowa's current felon voting laws, six percent of adults will eventually lose their right to vote.

Currently Iowa, Kentucky and Florida are the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to felon voting.