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Iowa's top court to rule on felon voting ban

Iowa is one of just three states that disenfranchises almost all former felons for life. Now its highest court will decide whether to loosen the ban.
Residents vote at a polling place on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) on Sept. 28, 2012 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Residents vote at a polling place on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) on Sept. 28, 2012 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Iowa’s highest court will decide whether to loosen the state’s strict ban on voting by former felons.

The Iowa Supreme Court said last week it would hear a challenge to the ban brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights groups. The Hawkeye State is one of just three states — Florida and Kentucky are the other two — that disenfranchise former felons for life unless the governor personally intercedes.

RELATED: Maryland restores voting rights for over 40,000

"Iowa’s criminal disenfranchisement laws permanently deprive citizens, like our client Kelli Griffin, of their fundamental right to vote," Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights lawyer with the ACLU, told MSNBC. "Lifetime disenfranchisement is destructive to democracy and to the re-entry efforts of citizens who have served their sentence, which in Kelli’s case was a term of probation. We’re encouraged that the Iowa Supreme Court will hear our case on this significant issue."

The lawsuit seeks to clarify language in the state constitution, which bans voting by those convicted of an “infamous crime.” Until 2014, all felonies and even some misdemeanors had been considered infamous crimes. But that year, the Supreme Court backed away from that view, though it didn’t say exactly how the phrase should be interpreted.

The lawsuit was dismissed by a state judge last year, who ruled that it was up to the state's Supreme Court to change how the ban is interpreted if it wants to. Now, the high court will consider whether to do so.

Griffin, the plaintiff in the case, is a mother of four who was convicted in 2008 of a drug-related offense. Three years earlier, the state's then-governor, Democrat Tom Vilsack, had issued an executive order saying all felons would have their right to vote restored upon completion of their sentences. In 2013, upon completion of her parole, Griffin voted in a local election. But Griffin was unaware that in 2011, the state’s incoming Republican governor, Terry Branstad, had reversed Vilsack’s order with one of his own, saying rights restoration would be at his discretion. Since then, Branstad has restored voting rights to only 82 Iowans, his office said recently.

In 2014, Griffin was charged with perjury in connection with her mistaken vote — part of an aggressive investigation of voter fraud led by Matt Schultz, the Republican secretary of state at the time. After she testified that she had wrongly believed she was eligible to vote, Griffin was acquitted.

"Why shouldn't we be able to  vote for who is on our school board, for who is the president of the United States, or who is our governor?" Griffin asked in an interview with MSNBC last year. "I believe we have as much right as anybody else." 

Felon disenfranchisement laws prevent nearly 6 million Americans from voting. But Iowa isn’t the only state to where efforts are underway to loosen these restrictions. On Tuesday, Maryland lawmakers voted to override their governor’s veto of a bill that will restore voting rights to felons after their release from prison, immediately affecting more than 40,000 people.

The Supreme Court's hearing will take place March 30th. Iowa could be a crucial battleground in the 2016 presidential race.