Branstad, Pate Defend Voter Disenfranchisement Policies Ahead of Landmark Court Ruling

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The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to rule next month on a landmark voting rights case that could narrow the scope of those who are disenfranchised under the state’s definition of “infamous crimes.”

The right of suffrage was enshrined in the state’s current constitution when it was written in 1857, but a stipulation was included to deny the “privilege of an elector” to anyone convicted of infamous crimes, which were left undefined. For decades, state courts have interpreted them to include all felonies, but in 2014, in a ruling that an aggravated misdemeanor conviction did not disqualify state Sen. Tony Bisignano from running for office, the Supreme Court also split evenly on whether infamous crimes included all felonies.

The current case before the court involves Kelli Jo Griffin, who was charged with voter fraud as part of the fruitless dragnet of Iowa’s previous secretary of state, Republican Matt Schultz. In 2008, Griffin was sentenced to five years of probation for a felony cocaine conviction, and her probation officer failed to tell her that she couldn’t vote after completing probation. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Griffin is arguing that her crime should not have been considered infamous.

Griffin’s act of voting wasn’t even a crime when she was convicted on the coke charge. But in 2011, shortly after returning to office, Branstad rescinded an executive order by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that automatically restored felons’ voting rights after the completion of their sentences.

Now, Branstad and Secretary of State Paul Pate, both Republicans, have been publicly downplaying the impact of their party’s wide-reaching voter disenfranchisement policies that have left Iowa as one of only three states to permanently bar felons from voting unless they manage to get their rights restored by the governor.

In an op-ed published in newspapers around the state in early April, days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, Pate called voting a “sacred privilege” (as opposed to a right, as his own website defines voting). He disputed the notion that most Iowa felons are permanently disqualified from the franchise, arguing that petitioning Branstad for restoration of voting rights is “not an arduous process” as critics contend.

“Despite what you might have heard,” Pate wrote, “the process is not difficult. Felons can fill out a simple 29-question form and send it to the governor’s office.”

That form — which originally contained 31 questions, until Branstad “streamlined” the application in 2012 by removing a credit history check and easing up on a requirement that all fines be paid — apparently wasn’t simple enough with a major voting rights decision looming in the state’s highest court. Last Wednesday, Branstad announced that the process was being streamlined again to eliminate questions about child support payments, tax return filings, and a handful of other items including an essay-style question asking why the governor should be convinced an applicant is a good citizen.

“This form is less than one page in length and reduces the number of questions from 29 to 13,” the press release said (a misleading claim, because several questions were not eliminated but combined). “With this new application form, Iowa’s already simple voting rights restoration process will become even more efficient and convenient.”

The numbers tell a much different story. By the end of 2015, just 96 people deemed eligible by the governor’s office to have their voting rights restored applied to do so. All of them eventually succeeded, but there are 57,000 disenfranchised felons in Iowa, more than 20,000 of whom have completed their sentences. By mid-April this year, only 25 more applications had been submitted.

Branstad’s latest so-called streamlining of the process offers free services to help felons apply to regain their right to vote but it does nothing to change a fundamental concern among proponents of automatic voting-rights restoration: that many felons, who are disproportionately minorities, don’t have the means to cover the legal costs required to even become eligible to apply.

“Under Branstad’s approach, convicts who have jobs and other financial resources might have their voting rights restored immediately,” the Des Moines Register argued in an editorial after Branstad’s election in 2010, shortly before he undid the automatic restoration of voting rights. “Those without the ability to pay would not. Thus, the right to vote could hinge on one’s financial status, which is akin to an unconstitutional poll tax, according to some advocates of full voting-rights restoration.”

For years, Iowa has had one of the nation’s worst records on African American incarceration rates and arrests for minor offenses like pot possession relative to white residents. That disparity has been reflected in the state’s disenfranchisement of felons: Before Vilsack signed his executive order in 2005, 19 percent of Iowa’s black residents were barred from voting despite accounting for just 2 percent of the state’s population.

When Pate ran for secretary of state in 2014, he distanced himself from Matt Schultz’s voter fraud crusade. But at the same time, Pate campaigned on a platform to succeed where Schultz had failed by requiring Iowans to obtain voter ID cards to participate in elections — a proposal championed by Republicans throughout the country on the grounds that it would prevent voter fraud, despite the lack of any credible evidence that it’s a problem and plenty of evidence that voter ID laws disenfranchise poor and minority voters who tend to favor Democrats. Despite having been reprimanded by the Iowa State Ethics Commission in 1997 for using his office to run for governor during his previous tenure as secretary of state, Pate vowed to be a “non-partisan chief commissioner of elections.”

But now, Pate is suggesting that his political opponents are seeking votes from killers and pedophiles, framing the Griffin case as an effort to expand voting rights even to inmates in Iowa prisons, which the plaintiff’s attorneys are not asking for. (Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote from behind bars.)

“The left-wing doesn’t want there to be any process,” Pate told attendees at last month’s 3rd District GOP convention in Creston. “They want child molesters and they want rapists and murderers to play a larger role in determining who our elected representatives are and who they’ll be.”

A decision is expected from the Iowa Supreme Court before its current term expires at the end of June.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.