IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa elections officials will continue to bar convicted felons from voting despite a landmark state Supreme Court ruling that suggests not all of them lost their voting rights, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Three justices ruled Tuesday that only some felonies are “infamous crimes” under the Iowa Constitution that bar individuals from voting or holding office. Writing for that group, Chief Justice Mark Cady said only crimes that suggest the offenders “would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance through elections” qualify. Cady said justices would have to “develop a more precise test” in future rulings to define them.
The ruling concluded that state Senate candidate Tony Bisignano can hold office even though he had been convicted of second-offense operating while intoxicated, an aggravated misdemeanor. Cady’s opinion invalidated three of the court’s prior rulings dating to 1916, which had held that any offense for which the potential punishment is imprisonment was an “infamous crime.” Cady suggested the new definition followed the intent of authors of Iowa’s Constitution, who wanted to protect the integrity of elections.
The ruling didn’t gain support from a majority of the court’s seven justices. Two others agreed with Cady that no aggravated misdemeanors were “infamous crimes,” but they argued that all felonies were. Dissenting Justice David Wiggins said the court should’ve kept its longstanding definition of “infamous crimes” to include all felonies and some misdemeanors. Justice Brent Appel, whose wife is running for Congress, recused himself.
Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s office will continue to treat all felonies as barring individuals from voting or holding office unless their rights have been restored by Gov. Terry Branstad, spokesman Chance McElHaney said. He noted that the court didn’t identify any specific felonies that were not “infamous crimes” or declare unconstitutional a state election law defining them as felonies.
Deputy Attorney General Jeff Thompson said the office must continue to follow that law. He said it’s prudent to wait to see whether the court later exempts specific crimes before making changes.
That position drew criticism from attorney Gary Dickey, who brought the challenge to Bisignano’s candidacy on behalf of primary opponent Ned Chiodo.
“The Iowa Supreme Court could not have been more clear that all felonies do not result in disenfranchisement; only those that threaten the integrity of the election process,” he said. “I think most Iowans would be troubled by the Secretary of State’s refusal to follow the Supreme Court’s interpretation.”
He said Schultz should request an opinion from the attorney general to identify which crimes fall under Cady’s definition, but state officials said that was unlikely.
Several lawyers agreed the ruling only made clear that no aggravated misdemeanors result in disenfranchisement, and the uncertainty may continue until Appel participates in a future case or a justice changes his opinion.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Bisignano asking justices to limit felon disenfranchisement. But it warned that any ruling should have “total clarity” on which crimes were infamous so that offenders could be informed of the loss of their voting rights.
“It’s unfortunate that the Secretary of State, when faced with this ambiguity, is erring on the side of disenfranchising voters rather than facilitating voting access by Iowans who have completed their sentences and repaid their debt to society,” its attorney, Rita Bettis, said Wednesday.
The ruling comes as eight ex-felons are charged with felony election misconduct for allegedly voting despite having lost their rights, under a voter fraud investigation championed by Schultz.
Ottumwa attorney Victoria Siegel, who is defending Cheri Rupe in a case scheduled for trial next month, said she plans to argue that the state law “has no rational basis” and has been rendered unconstitutional by Tuesday’s ruling. She said she would also argue that Rupe’s due process rights have been violated because of the uncertainty surrounding “who can and can’t vote.”