- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa judge upheld a state law that disqualifies felons from voting but said the state Supreme Court needs to sort out the confusion it caused last year when it ruled not all felons are automatically disenfranchised.

Judge Arthur Gamble ruled Monday in the case of a woman who voted in a 2013 city election thinking her voting rights had been restored after she completed probation on a 2008 felony cocaine delivery charge. The case was one of the first brought against a felon who had voted that went to a jury.

Kelli Jo Griffin of Montrose, 42, who said she’s turned her life around from drug addiction, was charged with perjury for registering to vote as a felon but a jury last year found her not guilty. Jurors concluded she’d made an honest mistake.

Under a policy established by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005, Iowa offenders automatically regained their voting rights when they left state supervision. However, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed an executive order when he took office in 2011 requiring felons to petition his office to seek restoration of their voting rights. That made Iowa one of only three states, along with Kentucky and Florida, with such a strict voter restoration process.

The Branstad process requires ex-felons to complete a detailed application, submit proof that court costs have been paid and provide a detailed criminal history.

The order caused confusion because some felons automatically had their rights restored under the Vilsack rules while others had to follow Branstad’s petition process, depending on when they completed their sentences.

Griffin, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, sued the state to challenge the state’s automatic disqualification of felons from voting and Branstad’s restoration process.

Iowa’s constitution says conviction of an infamous crime automatically strips citizens of the voting right, however, an infamous crime has never been well defined. A divided Iowa Supreme Court last year concluded that not all felonies are infamous crimes and it would define in future cases which felonies qualify.

Griffin’s challenge said her low-level, nonviolent drug conviction is not an infamous crime and she should not have been disenfranchised.

Her attorney, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis, said she wants the court to severely limit the number of felony offenses that trigger the loss of voting rights.

Attorneys for the state asked the court to uphold Iowa’s current voting rules and dismiss the case.

Gamble said the Iowa Supreme Court decision last year has forced judges to consider such lawsuits “on a case-by-case, felony-by-felony, basis” with little guidance. He concluded, though, that since the court did not strike down as unconstitutional the practice of excluding all felons from voting, it stands as current law he must follow.

“This court concludes that convicted felons, including Kelli Jo Griffin, remain disenfranchised … until a majority of our highest court holds otherwise,” he wrote.

Gamble also dismissed Griffin’s challenged to Branstad’s voting rights restoration process, finding it a reasonable protection of election integrity.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate agreed.

“When I took the oath of office in January, I swore to support the Constitution and the integrity of Iowa’s elections. That includes efforts to insure elections are not diluted by ineligible voters,” Pate said in a statement.

Bettis said she expected the case would end up before the high court.

“We always anticipated that this case would ultimately be resolved by the Iowa Supreme Court, which has the sole ability to answer this important constitutional question for Kelli and all Iowa voters,” she said.


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