Eligible voters in Iowa had the opportunity to exercise a privilege of democracy when the polls opened on Election Day, Nov. 4. Some of them chose not to participate, but thousands of others were denied the right to participate by a disputed provision in the Iowa Constitution. That provision excludes otherwise eligible voters who have been convicted of “any infamous crime,” which has generally been interpreted to mean felonies. Which also means that literally tens of thousands of people who have served their time and paid their debt to society are denied one of the fundamental rights of citizenship in a democracy. The latest effort to end this denial of a fundamental right came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa three days after the election. The lawsuit on behalf of a woman with a felony record from a drug conviction seeks have her voting rights restored by a Polk County District Court judge. She argues that her criminal conviction does not meet the definition of an “infamous” crime. Beyond that, the lawsuit asks the district court to specifically define which felonies fall under the broad definition of infamous crimes for voting rights purposes.
Regardless of how the district court rules, this case is almost certainly destined for the Iowa Supreme Court. The court left the door open to such suits in its decision in April that said criminal offenses classified as aggravated misdemeanors do not meet the definition of infamous crimes.
But the six justices who participated in that case were evenly divided on the question of whether all or only some felony crimes meet the definition of infamous. The seventh justice who did not participate in that case presumably would now cast a deciding vote in an appeal of the ACLU case.
If the ACLU’s lawsuit achieves the desired result, some Iowans with felony records would have their voting rights restored. That would be a good thing but not a total victory because the court likely would leave other felonies under the infamous definition. Total victory would come only by amending the Iowa Constitution to eliminate the clause that denies the right to vote to people with records of criminal convictions.