After finishing a probation sentence for cocaine possession in 2008, Kelli Jo Griffin of Montrose, Iowa, was told by her lawyer she was once again eligible to vote. The 42-year-old mother of four cleaned up her life and took her 13-year-old stepdaughter with her to vote in a local election in 2013. Unbeknownst to Griffin, Iowa Governor Terri Branstad had revoked the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons in 2011, and Griffin was ineligible to cast a ballot.
Griffin was prosecuted by then–Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz for knowingly lying on a voter-registration form, with a penalty of 15 years in jail. The jury deliberated for less than 40 minutes before acquitting Griffin. “I’m glad I can go back to being a mother,” she told The Des Moines Register.
However, Griffin still couldn’t vote in future elections, even after paying her debt to society. In 2014, she filed suit with the ACLU against Iowa’s felon-disenfranchisement law. Iowa is one of only three states, along with Florida and Kentucky, that permanently ban ex-felons from voting.
Today the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against Griffin in a 4-3 decision, blocking 20,000 ex-offenders from having their voting rights restored. The Iowa Constitution bars “a person convicted of any infamous crime” from voting, which the court’s majority said applied to Griffin’s sentence. “In the end, we are constrained to conclude that all objective indicia of today’s standard of infamy supports the conclusion that an infamous crime has evolved to be defined as a felony,” wrote Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady.
In 2005, Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack ended Iowa’s longstanding felon-disenfranchisement policy, issuing an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to ex-offenders who had completed their sentences. The move enfranchised 115,000 voters over the next six years. But Vilsack’s Republican successor, Governor Terry Branstad, immediately revoked the executive order after taking office in 2011, ruling that ex-offenders could only have their voting rights renewed after personally applying for reinstatement by the governor. From 2011 to 2015, more than 25,000 ex-offenders have completed their sentences, but only 119 people have had their voting rights restored by Branstad.
Branstad’s four appointees on the Iowa Supreme Court rejected Griffin’s petition, while the three Democratic appointees vigorously dissented. Wrote Justice Daryl Hecht: