Collateral Consequences and Voting – A Look at Disenfranchisement in Iowa

By Nicolle Rhim, Vol. 21 Student Writer

            My first year in college, I met my best friend in the form of an overzealous roommate from a small town in Iowa. Though I thought we had little in common, I became incredibly close to her and her family, namely her quirky and extremely lovable grandpa. After only a few years, Sarah and Grandpa were family to me; there were thanksgiving dinners and antique show weekends. It was only after a while, however, that I discovered something about Grandpa’s past. As a 72-year-old citizen of Iowa, he was not able to vote because 54 years ago, he made the mistake of stealing a car with some of his friends. The man I grew to love—a patriotic man who loved history, supported his entire family under difficult circumstances, and served his country in an undeclared war—was unable to vote 54 years after his only offense.

Collateral consequences are sanctions that limit or prohibit people with criminal records like Grandpa from engaging in or accessing employment, licensing, education, government benefits, loans, and namely, voting.[1] Though these consequences largely consist of sanctions that limit individuals who have been convicted of a crime, in some states even an arrest that does not result in a conviction may trigger collateral consequences.[2] Despite how commonly these consequences affect individuals with criminal histories, many are often difficult or confusing to identify. Because these “invisible punishments” often go unaddressed even by those responsible for their administration, “millions of Americans are consigned to a kind of permanent legal limbo because of a crime they committed in the past.”[3]While collateral consequences have always been a common feature of the American criminal justice system, they have become a more proliferated issue in an age of ubiquitous access to information, making these consequences harder to mitigate or avoid. 

One of these debilitating consequences is the deprivation of voting rights. Though state laws differ on the deprivation of voting rights for individuals with criminal convictions, the reality is that many otherwise eligible voters across the nation are disenfranchised without a compelling justification.[4] The Supreme Court, however, has upheld the constitutionality of disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated individuals convicted of a felony.[5] The expansion of offenses that count as felonies, however, has resulted in the increasing disenfranchisement of a significant number of the voting population.

In Iowa specifically, a person convicted of an infamous crime is ineligible to vote or hold public office.[6] In Iowa, an infamous crime is defined as a “crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary for a period of one year or more” but has been interpreted to be understood as generally, a “particularly serious” crime.[7] Therefore, the requisite crime for disenfranchisement may even be a lesser offense than a felony; one may be rendered ineligible due to an aggravated misdemeanor.[8] Though Iowa state citizens may regain their right to vote by appealing to the governor for a restoration of their rights or a pardon, this restoration is not a constitutional right. Furthermore, this laborious process includes an “application, a signed release, documentation verifying payment of court costs, fines and restitution and [the individual’s] Iowa criminal history record.”[9] The confusion surrounding criminal records and fear of perjury or voter-fraud charges have prevented thousands of Iowans from even attempting this “rocky road to reinstatement.”[10]

In a recent case, Griffin v. Pate, the Iowa Supreme Court revisited the issue of what constituted an “infamous crime” for the purposes of voting ineligibility under the Iowa constitution.[11] Recognizing that it had yet to determine a framework for determining the definition of “infamy,” the court looked to common law history and Iowa’s constitutional and legislative history.[12] Though the court acknowledged the significance of changing societal perceptions and other factors that favor narrowing the types of felonies that disenfranchise individuals, it ultimately authorized a broad interpretation of the constitutional provision.[13] The court held that because Griffin committed the crime of delivery of a controlled substance and was convicted of the offense, the offense was considered to be an “infamous crime” that effectively disqualified her from voting.[14] By adhering to this bright line rule that does not consider factors such as “nexus of the crime to the integrity of the electoral process,” the Iowa Supreme Court has, in one sweep, effectively affirmed a rule that disqualifies many from participating in a democratic process that affects their daily lives.[15]

As the development of crimes changes over time, certain offenses may disqualify more individuals from being eligible to vote. As a nation that recognizes the importance of political participation, equal opportunity, and social growth, we should recognize that excluding a significant proportion of otherwise eligible voters from our democracy will only perpetuate a cycle of inequity and injustice.

 

[1] See Project Description, CSG Justice Center, https://niccc.csgjusticecenter.org/description/ (last visited Sept. 21, 2017).

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Richard v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974).

[6] Iowa Const. art II, § 5.  

[7] Chiodo v. Section, 846 N.W.2d 845, 856 (2014).

[8] Iowa Const. art II, § 5.

[9] See Tara A. Jackson, Dilution of the Black, 7 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 81, 91 (2017).

[10] See id. at 92.

[11] Griffin v. Pate, 884 N.W.2d 182 (2016).

[12] See id. at 18695.

[13] See id. at 203.

[14] See id. at 204. 

[15] See Griffin, 884 N.W.2d at 217 (Appel, J., dissenting).