In Iowa, once you commit a felony, you forever lose the right to vote.
This makes Iowa one of the three most restrictive states when it comes to felon voting. But the Iowa ACLU says the state's constitution does allow felons to vote, and will argue that later this month at the state Supreme Court.
When he was 24, Justin McCarthy went to federal prison for 15 months on charges related to illegal firearms and marijuana possession. This wasn’t McCarthy’s first run-in with the law, but prison was a turning point.
"I had a cell mate in there, his name was Papa Smurf. He got locked up when I was three months old, got out less than three months before me, did 25 years. I don't want to be some 70-year-old dude getting out of the joint," says McCarthy.
Today, McCarthy is 33 and lives in Dubuque. He says he’s college graduate, father of two, and does welding* for a living. It's a job he's lucky to have considering how difficult it is for some with felony records to find employment.
But McCarthy says he can’t fully participate in his community because he can’t vote.
"With the way our country's going, in my opinion, it's kind of like being a rat stuck in the cargo hold of a sinking ship," he says. "You can see it going down and the water rising, you can't do anything about it. You're just kind of there for the ride."
McCarthy could petition to have his voting rights reinstated, but like many Iowans with a felony record, he found the process overly complex.
Iowa’s constitution says all people who commit “infamous crimes,” forever lose the right to vote. And the state of Iowa says all felonies are infamous, which means nearly six-percent of adults in Iowa will lose the right to vote in their lifetime. That includes one-in-four African Americans in Iowa, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU argues only a small, select group of crimes that threaten democratic governance—like voter fraud, or lying under oath—should be considered infamous. And under this definition, McCarthy would be able to vote.
The state’s constitution was adopted in 1857, and offers little insight into this battle of semantics.
Myrna Perez is an advocate for felon voting. She directs the Voting Rights and Elections Project for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. She says Iowa is at one end of a broad spectrum of states when it comes to felon voting.
"In some states like Maine and Vermont, you never get the right to vote taken away from you. So you can vote, even if you're in prison," says Perez. "In other states, for example in Kentucky and Florida and Iowa, you get your rights disenfranchised permanently."
Perez says if people with felony convictions are living, working and raising families in the community, it only makes sense that they also should be allowed to vote.
"We are not serving any sort of public safety justification by treating people as second class citizen," says Perez.
Others support restoring voting rights to ex-felons, or never taking away those rights in the first place. Karl Schilling is president of the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance. He also believes people with felonies should be allowed to vote, in part because research shows it may lower recidivism rates.
"People are born citizens, and they're naturalized and become citizens, and when that happens, I think those rights should be inalienable, and they should not be contingent upon behavior," says Schilling. "If they want to have voting booths in prison, I'm OK with it."
But Roger Clegg, who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Virginia, disagrees.
"If you're not willing to follow the law, you can't demand the right to make the law for everybody else," he says.
Clegg argues it doesn’t matter if the person is a murderer or a nonviolent drug offender, their actions undermine an orderly society. Therefore, he believes the ACLU’s argument that only certain crimes violate democratic governance is false.
"If we allow criminals to vote, their voting is going to cancel out the votes of law-abiding people who may have very different ideas on things like law enforcement, and what kinds of actions should and shouldn't be allowed in the community," he says.
In 1994, the Iowa legislature passed a statuary definition saying that all felonies are infamous crimes.* The State Supreme Court could rule that this definition is unconstitutional, or defer to the legislature. If the latter happens, then likely the only way Iowa’s felon voting laws could ever permanently change is through a constitutional amendment.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated McCarthy's profession as cable installation technician.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 1994 statuary definition said that all infamous crimes are felonies. Rather the definition said that all felonies are infamous crimes.