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Griffin v. Pate

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief with the Iowa Supreme Court arguing that Iowa’s felony disenfranchisement policy improperly burdens Iowans’ voting rights.

Published: August 7, 2016

On June 30, 2016, in a case called Griffin v. Pate, the Iowa Supreme Court held that Iowa’s policy of permanent disenfranchisement for all citizens with felony convictions does not violate the state’s constitution. Iowa remains one of only three states – alongside Kentucky and Florida – to continue this harsh and antiquated policy of lifetime disenfranchisement.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, an Iowa resident and mother of four who is disenfranchised because of a past drug-related offense. Together they asked the court to declare that the Iowa Constitution prohibits the disenfranchisement of people convicted of certain felonies (such as Griffin’s nonviolent drug offense). The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in this case with pro-bono counsel Greenberg Traurig, LLP, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Iowa.

The majority opinion disagreed with the challengers, and held that the state’s constitution does not prohibit the disenfranchisement of all citizens with felony convictions. The decision relied on the legislature’s interpretation of the constitution in making their decision.

Iowa’s Disenfranchisement Law

For a time, Iowa ended its permanent disenfranchisement. In 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring voting rights to Iowans who had already completed sentences for felony convictions, and providing for ongoing restorations to people completing sentences thereafter. In the nearly six years it was in effect, Vilsack’s order restored voting rights to an estimated 115,000 citizens. Immediately upon taking office, his successor, Gov. Terry Branstad, issued his own executive order that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions unless they applied to his office for approval.

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