Primary dispute risks voting rights for thousands

DES MOINES – A primary skirmish between two Des Moines politicians running for a state Senate seat could have a sweeping impact on voter eligibility in Iowa.

In a Capitol meeting room Friday, the battle lines were drawn between Democrats Tony Bisignano and Ned Chiodo, both vying for the seat that Jack Hatch is vacating to run for governor. Chiodo says that Bisignano should be disqualified from the race because of a drunken driving conviction in January.

In challenging that, Chiodo also throws into question the voting rights of thousands of Iowa residents who’ve been charged with aggravated misdemeanors. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller estimates as many as 50,000 people could be affected, though Chiodo’s attorney, Gary Dickey, believes it’s more likely around 5,000.

At issue is whether an aggravated misdemeanor falls under the Iowa Constitution’s definition of an infamous crime, which would mean Bisignano cannot vote or hold public office. Dickey bases his argument on a constitutional article that says a person convicted of an infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.

On Friday, a panel made up of Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and State Auditor Mary Mosiman rejected Dickey’s argument that anyone convicted in Iowa of an aggravated misdemeanor – for things such as possessing small amounts of marijuana or driving with a revoked license – shouldn’t vote.

Their decision means Bisignano can run for the Senate District 17 seat.

Dickey has appealed to the Polk County District court and asked for an expedited hearing. He said he’ll appeal all the way to state Supreme Court if necessary. The case must be resolved by early April in time for county election officials to get ballots printed, Schultz said.

The primary is June 3.

Bisginano’s attorney, Joseph Glazebrook, said in an interview that the voters should choose who they vote for in an election.

The Iowa Constitution doesn’t define “infamous crime,” and courts over the last 100 years have construed it to mean anything that results in a prison sentence. The Legislature revised the criminal code in the 1970s, requiring prison time in some circumstances for individuals convicted of aggravated misdemeanors.

But the panel said Friday that a 1994 law passed by the Iowa Legislature clearly defined infamous crimes as state felonies and crimes considered felonies under federal statutes. In practice, state election officials have long removed only felons from voting rolls.

“In order to grant his objection, Mr. Chiodo asks us to ignore or set aside the unambiguous will of the very institution he seeks to join,” the panel said in its decision. It was also convinced the Iowa Legislature “did not intend to disqualify Iowans from voting as a result of a second-offense OWI conviction.”

If the district court and the Supreme Court side with the panel decision, it likely will confirm current practice that only felons can’t vote. An adverse ruling, however, could be chaos.

“A change in the panel’s outcome if appealed to court could affect the right to vote of every person convicted of aggravated misdemeanors,” said Chance McElhaney, a spokesman for Schultz.

Mark Kende, director of Drake University’s Constitutional Law Center, said “infamous crime” is a dated term and, if Chiodo’s case gets that far, could spur the Iowa Supreme Court to clarify the meaning.

“It would seem to me that they would take into account the fact that this is an older term and we need to be aware of modern conditions and at least have to be concerned about anything that would have a widespread disenfranchisement,” he said.

The panel believes the high court would reject the idea that all crimes that could land someone in prison disqualifies him or her from voting, it said in its decision.

In his appeal, which asks the district court to disqualify Bisignano from running, Dickey said the panel’s “illogical” decision conflicts with the state constitution and is based on an erroneous interpretation of Iowa.

“It’s important to know this isn’t an issue about disenfranchisement,” Dickey said. “There’s a process those voters can seek through the governor’s office to have their rights restored and we hope Gov. (Terry) Branstad would act quickly on their request.”

The legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Rita Bettis, said it’s not appropriate for the group to jump into the middle of a primary political battle.

“This is only the latest example of how unworkable the governor’s policy regarding the restoration of voting rights is,” she said. She also called on Branstad to sign an executive order automatically restoring the right to vote to those who lost it when they complete prison sentences.

Also Friday, a third Democrat launched his campaign for the south-side Des Moines seat. Nathan Blake, an assistant Iowa attorney general, declined to discuss the Bisignano/Chiodo dispute because his boss, Miller, was a member of the panel.

Follow David Pitt on Twitter at twitter.com/davepitt .

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