For his courageous and principled stand to support voting rights for as many Iowans as possible, Jamie Fitzgerald has been named the ACLU of Iowa’s 2016 Louise Noun Award winner.
Fitzgerald has served as Polk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections since 2007. His office is responsible for a wide variety of functions, including conducting elections in Iowa’s largest county.
He has been given the award as a result of his taking a legal stand to protect the right to vote of tens of thousands of Iowans who have a felony conviction in their background.
In January 2016, Fitzgerald filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the recent Iowa Supreme Court Case brought by the ACLU of Iowa— Kelli Jo Griffin v. Paul Pate. Kelli Griffin is a Montrose, Iowa mom who took her children with her to vote in order to show them how the democratic process works. She ended up standing trial and facing up to 15 years in jail for voter fraud because she mistakenly believed that she could vote after completing her sentence that resulted from a non-violent felony drug conviction in her past. In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad issued an executive order making it illegal for Iowans with felony convictions to vote unless they first have their voting rights restored by the Governor, a process that is burdensome to most.
At the time of her conviction Griffin was told, correctly at the time, by her defense lawyer that she could vote once she completed her probation. But Iowa law changed out from under her, and she was never notified. She was acquitted of all criminal charges for voting, but still couldn’t vote. The ACLU of Iowa represented her in her lawsuit, which asked the Iowa Supreme Court to find that the Iowa law that disqualified her from voting for her nonviolent conviction was unconstitutional.
As part of that lawsuit, the Iowa Association of Counties and Iowa County Attorney Association were on the opposing side of justice, arguing that Iowans with a felony conviction should not automatically have their right to vote restored.
As Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, summarized it: “Essentially, they were asking the Court to deny the fundamental right to vote to Kelli Griffin and thousands of others with felony convictions, based on the claim that letting these Iowans vote would be an administrative hassle. We countered with an explanation that counties couldn’t put administrative convenience above a fundamental constitutional right.”
That’s where Fitzgerald came in, exhibiting true leadership in office and putting his oath to protect the constitutional rights of voters in his district above any other considerations. With the help of attorney Gary Dickey, he filed an amicus brief in the case, rebuking the opposition’s claims. He made clear that “allowing some felons to vote would not be an administrative burden any more than the myriad other provisions that county auditors and poll-workers must contend with."
Fitzgerald’s stand was especially powerful because he is the administrator of elections
in the state’s largest and most diverse county, where the disenfranchisement associated with the case has especially effected people of color. That fact was noted in his amicus brief: “Ease of election administration is not the most important concern of a county auditor,”
Fitzgerald’s brief read. “The most important concern of the Auditor as commissioner of elections is ensuring that qualified Iowa voters can access the ballot.” Griffin lost her case in a narrow 4-3 decision.
As Bettis observed, “While we respect the Court’s decision in the Griffin case, history will not look back on its outcome favorably; with leaders like Auditor Fitzgerald, we will eventually win this important civil rights effort.”