One is a sex offender who failed to register. Another stabbed a fellow teen to death in the 1970s. A third illegally possessed a firearm, and the other two have drug convictions. All five northeastern Iowa residents are charged with illegally voting in the 2012 presidential election as ineligible felons. But the Iowa Supreme Court will consider which offenders lose their voting rights in the first place: all felons or only a tiny fraction who commit specific “infamous crimes”? While the five defendants are not directly involved in the case, they would benefit from a ruling that narrowly limits the crimes that trigger lifetime voting bans. Oral arguments are Wednesday in Des Moines. The Supreme Court case has gained widespread attention because Iowa has one of the nation’s harshest bans against voting by felons. Critics say it’s a stain on the state’s progressive civil rights record and disproportionately limits blacks from voting and holding public office.
At issue is the definition of wording in the Iowa Constitution that strips anyone convicted of an “infamous crime” of their voting rights for life, unless restored by the governor. For 100 years, the court interpreted that to mean all felons and anyone convicted of aggravated misdemeanors, which carry potential prison time.
But the high court threw out that precedent in 2014 by ruling that no misdemeanor offenders lose their voting rights. Justices split over whether the “infamous crimes” provision disenfranchises all felons — as defined by lawmakers — or only those who would undermine the integrity of elections if they were allowed to participate, such as people convicted of election fraud, bribery and perjury.