The Iowa Supreme Court has just issued a ruling in the case of Griffin v. Pate, which tackled the issue of voting rights for convicted felons. Iowa has some of the strongest laws dealing with felons in the country. The plantiff in the case is a woman by the name of Kelli Jo Griffin, a 42-year old mother who was convicted for cocaine delivery. Not clear on the law, she had thought after completing her sentence and doing her time, that her voting rights were restored. This was not the case.
Is this right? Should felons, given they committed a crime of this nature, have a right to vote?
Griffin had brought her children to watch her vote in 2013 in a municipal election. One should take pride in voting and participating in the political processes that shape our nation, and given low voter turnout every election, our children should be encouraged as well. Clearly believing in both, she had brought her children to do just that.
And as a result, she broke the law.
There are two issues at the heart of this debate. First, should the government be able to disqualify you from certain rights based on a type of criminal conviction? Second, where does the line get drawn?
Sometimes barring a criminal from certain rights has a logical purpose. If someone is convicted of a crime involving firearms, logically, there is an argument against them holding a firearm. But if someone is convicted of a drug charge that didn’t involve guns, should they be barred from owning a firearm?
This is relevant to the voting issue, because now we’re debating which constitution rights stay or go, and how they should be deprived. It’s a slippery slope.
If the government starts classifying more crimes as felonies, they can start depriving more rights of more people. In the case of a 42-year old mother who transported cocaine, she’s lost her rights because she made a mistake. She may not have even used cocaine and certainly didn’t murder anyone, but she’s being held to a standard as someone who may have committed a more legitimately heinous crime.
Should everyone who makes a drug related mistake be deprived of rights for life and be punished even after doing their time?
There’s a case for making punishments strong, because they can then discourage people from doing bad things. There is also a concern about excessive punishment, which is why our own federal Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment was apart of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to calm fears that the government could become out-of-control and take down the freedoms our founders had just secured.
Allowing government to set what a felony crime is and be able to deprive rights based on a felony conviction is a very dangerous idea. While one woman made a mistake with cocaine, many others are making mistakes with drug. Addiction itself is more of a health problem than a crime. But now health problems and government changing the bar for felony crimes is affecting voting rights.
If we allow voting rights to be stripped of convicted felons, we must accept the fact that other crimes could later become felonies. Is this a risk we as a free society is willing to take?