Last week’s splintered Iowa Supreme Court decision created a lot of confusion about the state of the law regarding the voting rights of Iowans with criminal records. But the court’s lack of clarity made one thing perfectly clear: The Iowa Constitution must be amended to eliminate the clause that is at the heart of this confusion. A majority of the seven-member court resolved the immediate question of Iowa Senate candidate Tony Bisignano’s eligibility to be on the June 3 primary ballot. His opponent, Ned Chiodo, argued that because Bisignano had pleaded guilty to second-offense drunken driving he was not eligible to vote or hold public office under Iowa law. Second-offense drunken driving is an aggravated misdemeanor, however. The court ruled that convictions for crimes below the level of felonies do not disqualify voters or candidates for public office.
Beyond that, the court was sharply divided on the voting rights of potentially thousands of other Iowans with criminal records. Members of the court were unclear on that issue because the language used by the authors of the Iowa Constitution 150 years ago is unclear about who is ineligible to vote and hold public office. The only realistic solution is to amend the Iowa Constitution, and Iowa should get that process moving as quickly as possible.
The problem is a section of the Iowa Constitution that denies voting rights — and by extension, the right to hold public office — to persons convicted of “any infamous crime.” The authors of the constitution who drafted the document in 1857 did not define “infamous” crime, however. And the Supreme Court justices who heard the Chiodo case struggled to come up with a definition that fits contemporary criminal law in Iowa.