Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) filed an amicus brief urging the Iowa Supreme Court to end felon disfranchisement in the state. The case of Kelli Jo Griffin vs. Paul Pate is about which Iowans get to have a voice in voting. Iowa has one of the most restrictive felon disfranchisement laws in the country: anyone convicted of a felony in Iowa is permanently barred from voting, unless their voting rights are restored by the Governor. Only the state of Florida has a similarly restrictive regime. LDF argues that felon disfranchisement is an antiquated system that discriminates against African-American voters.
“Felon disfranchisement laws are a powerful, discriminatory formal barrier to ballot access, and, as such, they should be ended,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “Many felon disfranchisement laws were explicitly passed during the Jim Crow era to weaken African-American voting strength and have no place in our modern democracy. Iowa has an opportunity to end its prejudicial history with a new court ruling.”
While Iowa broadly guarantees the right to vote, it expressly disqualifies those convicted of an “infamous crime.” The definition of an “infamous crime” has never been clearly defined and is currently interpreted by the state to exclude all those with felony convictions from voting, unless the Governor approves restoration of the individual’s “citizenship” rights. The application to restore voting rights in Iowa is invasive and cumbersome, and requires time and money to complete – often scarce resources for individuals with prior felony convictions. The discretionary nature of the process also creates an unfair barrier for those seeking restoration. This has been evidenced in the meager number of individuals who have actually had their citizenship rights restored: between 2011 and 2013, only 40 Iowans regained their voting rights.
Further, Iowa’s disfranchisement law has a disproportionate effect on the state’s African-American communities. African Americans in Iowa are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned, as compared to whites. As a result of the racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system, felon disfranchisement disproportionately denies African Americans access to the fundamental right to vote. Given that most African-American Iowans live in a handful of counties in the state, Iowa’s disfranchisement laws significantly impact those communities.
“Because African Americans are disproportionately convicted of crimes and disproportionately disfranchised in Iowa, communities in the state with significant African-American populations have less political power and less ability to represent their interests,” said Coty Montag, LDF’s Deputy Director of Litigation. “Iowa’s felon disfranchisement law is archaic, discriminatory and inconsistent with the state’s more general trend toward protecting the equality of all residents. The state Supreme Court should restore the voting rights of Iowans with felony convictions, without imposing undue additional burdens or discretionary procedures.”
Our democracy and the communities within it are stronger and healthier when its members participate in the political process. Through voting, along with other forms of civic participation, an individual with a conviction reinforces an identity as a responsible citizen and reduces his or her likelihood of recidivism. As a result, in the last twenty years, states across the country have recognized the need to reduce and remove voting restrictions on people with criminal convictions. Iowa should follow suit and restore voting rights to individuals with felony convictions in order to boost civic engagement, promote inclusive communities and enhance the voting strength of all citizens in the state.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all. LDF also defends the gains and protections won over the past 75 years of civil rights struggle and works to improve the quality and diversity of judicial and executive appointments. Since its founding in 1940, LDF has been a pioneer in securing and protecting the voting rights of African-Americans and other people of color, including involvement in nearly all precedent-setting litigation relating to minority voting rights.