November 4 was a devastating day for Iowa Democrats, but let’s look on the bright side for a moment.
1. Democrats held the Iowa Senate majority.
Since 2011, the Iowa Senate has kept us off the disastrous path followed by Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states where Republicans control the trifecta. I’m disappointed that with a favorable map, Democrats weren’t able to expand their Iowa Senate contingent to 27 or 28. State Senator Daryl Beall was one of the good ones and will be missed by many. But a wave like that could have done a lot more damage.
For at least two more years, the Iowa Senate will continue to be a firewall against all kinds of horrible legislation that Iowa House Republicans will pass and Governor Terry Branstad would sign.
2. Iowa is no longer in a club with Mississippi.
All week, I’ve been reflecting on the many thoughtful and capable women who have been involved in Iowa politics during my lifetime. Not only Democrats, but also Republicans from Mary Louise Smith to Joy Corning to Mary Lundby and most recently, Mariannette Miller-Meeks. These women cared about public policy and ran for office to get things done. They weren’t recruited by strategists who thought they would be a marketable package. For this place in history to go to someone as ignorant and stage-managed as Joni Ernst feels very wrong.
That said, at least my children will not grow up believing that Iowans are too narrow-minded to elect a woman to Congress.
3. The Iowa Supreme Court is more likely to expand voting rights for thousands of non-violent ex-felons.
I had hoped Staci Appel would become Iowa’s first woman in Congress, but this wasn’t the year to be running against a guy who projects as a generic Republican.
The good news is that Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel will almost certainly be able to hear a lawsuit expected to be filed soon, which would challenge Iowa’s current law on voting rights. In April, a divided Iowa Supreme Court allowed Tony Bisignano to appear on the ballot despite a aggravated misdemeanor conviction. Three of the seven justices indicated that they were prepared to strike down a 1994 law defining all felonies as “infamous crimes,” which under the Iowa Constitution lead to the loss of a citizen’s voting rights. Three other justices disagreed with that opinion for various reasons and would uphold current law.
Justice Appel recused himself from the Bisignano case, but in other non-unanimous rulings he has usually joined the justices who believe not all felonies should disqualify Iowans from voting (Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Bruce Zager).
Iowa Supreme Court justices tend to err on the side of recusing themselves, rather than hearing cases where there could be any appearance of a conflict of interest. Had Staci Appel won on Tuesday, I suspect Brent Appel would not have weighed in on any case affecting who might be able to vote to re-elect his wife. His participation could make the difference between a 3-3 split and a 4-3 majority ruling rendering the legislative definition of an “infamous crime” as unconstitutional. Thousands of Iowans with non-violent felony convictions might then be able to vote, as felons can do in most other states upon completion of their sentences.
UPDATE: When I wrote this post, I didn’t know the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa was planning to file a lawsuit today challenging Iowa’s restriction on felon voting rights. The ACLU of Iowa is acting on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, who was tried and acquitted for voter fraud earlier this year. After the jump I’ve enclosed the announcement, with more background and detail on the lawsuit.
Press release from the ACLU of Iowa, November 7:
ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Iowa Mom Seeking to Regain Her Right to Vote
Montrose and Des Moines, Iowa – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, an Iowa mom who is striving to regain her right to vote. Griffin lost her voting rights in 2008 following a nonviolent drug conviction. She completed her probation but is no longer allowed to vote under Iowa law because of that conviction.
Many states restore voting rights automatically after citizens complete their sentences. Iowa is one of three states where people with a criminal conviction can lose their voting rights for life; that right is restored solely at the discretion of the governor.
“People who have served their sentences should have the opportunity to fully contribute to their communities and to our democracy,” said Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the national ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Many of these citizens work, pay taxes, and raise their families in our communities, yet they continue to be unfairly punished and left without a political voice.”
Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said “Our client is bravely standing up for her right to vote on policies that will impact her and her family, and to protect the rights of other Iowans who like her couldn’t go to the polls earlier this week and exercise this most simple and basic of our civil rights.”
The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, seeks to restore Griffin’s voting rights; asks the court to declare that the Iowa Constitution prohibits the disenfranchisement of people convicted of lower-level felonies (such as nonviolent drug offenses); and seeks an injunction to stop the state from bringing criminal charges against Iowans with past lower-level felonies who register to vote.
A series of executive orders from different Iowa governors has left a confusing patchwork of voting rights affecting those with a past criminal conviction. From 2005-2010, the state automatically restored voting rights, but in 2011 it revoked that policy, failing to adequately notify people affected by the change. There is also a lack of clarity about which crimes strip Iowans of their right to vote. Until a recent state court ruling in a case involving the ACLU, Iowans with some types of misdemeanor offenses were treated as if they lost their right to vote by the governor’s office, but not the secretary of state. Some Iowans who thought they could vote were charged with crimes for getting it wrong.
Griffin became entangled in this morass in 2008, when she was correctly informed that, under the policy in place at that time, her right to vote would be restored when she completed probation in January 2013. During a local election in 2013, she went to her polling place with her children to teach them the importance of voting. Griffin cast her ballot not knowing that she was no longer eligible to vote under Gov. Terry Branstad’s latest policy, adopted in 2011. She was later arrested and charged as part of the state’s voter fraud investigation championed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. At trial, it took just 40 minutes for the jury to acquit her, though she remains blocked from voting under current Iowa law.
“Once you’ve changed your life, then you’re saying that you are a productive member of society, and that’s what the courts are telling you too when they release you from probation. So given that, why aren’t other people given back the right to vote? We are productive members of society, so why aren’t we treated like it?” said Griffin, a mother of four who actively contributes to her community through her volunteer work on behalf of children and others who, like her, are survivors of abuse or are in recovery for addiction.
The petition, Griffin v. Branstad, was filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Iowa. It names Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, and Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise as defendants.
The petition is at:
A short video clip of Kelli is at:
The ACLU of Iowa is a private, non-partisan organization that fights to advance civil liberties for all. It is
the state affiliate of the national American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU prides itself in upholding everyone’s civil liberties, no matter who they are or what they believe. We work to assure the rights of all Iowans-from atheists to devout Christians, from labor unions to businesspeople and more-to make sure the constitutional rights of all are preserved. For more information, please go to www.alclu-ia.org
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