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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 due to 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 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."
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 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.
"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," said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa.
The petition, Griffin v. Branstad, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Iowa. It names Gov. Terry Branstad, Secretary of State Matt Schultz, and Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise as defendants.
The petition is at: https://www.aclu.org/voting-rights/griffin-v-branstad-petition
More information is at: https://www.aclu.org/voting-rights/griffin-v-branstad