Felon Not Eligible to Vote, IA High Court Rules

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: IA election law, felons.

Kelli Jo Griffin v. Paul Pate. IA elections, felons

In 2008, Kelli Jo Griffin was convicted of a felony, delivery of 100 grams or less of cocaine. She was sentenced to five years of probation, and successfully discharged her sentence in 2013.

In November, 2013, she registered to vote and cast a provisional ballot in a municipal election in Montrose, Iowa. The county auditor determined that she was not eligible to vote and rejected the ballot. She was also charged with perjury for registering and voting, but was acquitted after a jury trial.

Griffin then filed a petition in district court and asked for a declaration that her felony conviction did not disqualify her from voting. The district court held that the ballot was properly rejected. She appealed, and the case made its way to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Under Article II, Section 5, of the Iowa constitution, a person is disqualified from voting if "adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime."

The issue in the case was whether the felony delivery of a controlled substance was an "infamous crime." The court held that this was an issue to be decided by the court, notwithstanding a 1994 statute defining an infamous crime as any felony. (Iowa Code 39.3(8)).

The court traced the history of the concept of "infamous crimes" to ancient Greece and Rome, the Canon Law of the Church, and the common law. It noted that similar phrases had been included in the constitutions of 1846, 1857, and 2008.

The territorial laws had specifically identified certain crimes as infamous, but this statute had been repealed in 1843. The term, in the context of a witness's credibility, had been addressed by the court in 1848 in Carter v. Cavenaugh, 1 Greene 171 (Iowa 1848), as "the heinous crimes classed as treason, felony, and the crimen falsi as understood at common law."

The issue came up in the context of voting in Blodgett v. Clarke, 177 Iowa 575, 159 N.W. 243 (1916), in which the court held that any crime punishable by imprisonment in the penetentiary was an "infamous" crime.

After reviewing the history, the court noted that the infamous crime concept for voting was closely aligned with the common law concept of infamy, which generally defined infamous crimes as felonies.

The court then went on to hold that the legislature's 1994 definition of infamy, while not necessarily binding on the court, was "not out of line with the national view of infamy in the context of voter disqualification."

In this case, the legislative judgment was clearly expressed, and there are no facts or scientific evidence to undermine that judgment. In truth, the clamor of debate has largely passed over the issue of disqualifying voters in Iowa for a conviction of an infamous crime, and courts are unable to move issues forward on their own perceptions of infamy in today’s society. In this case, there is insufficient evidence to overcome the 1994 legislative judgment, and we must accept it today as the standard for infamous crime. It will be up to our future democracy to give the necessary voice to the issue and engage in the debate that advances democracy.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court's judgment.

No. 15-1661 (Iowa June 30, 2016).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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