DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa elections officials don't have a uniform or accurate way to check whether potential voters are ineligible felons — a systematic failure that has resulted in people being wrongly disenfranchised or allowed to vote illegally.
In interviews with The Associated Press, state and county officials blame a lack of funding, disparate use of technology at polling places and record-keeping errors. Major shifts in state policy have exacerbated the problem by creating confusion among offenders and bureaucrats.
Attorney General Eric Holder called on Iowa and other states Tuesday to restore voting rights for former inmates, saying that millions of citizens are unfairly disenfranchised. He criticized Gov. Terry Branstad's 2011 order requiring former felons to apply to regain their voting rights instead of having them automatically restored, noting that only a tiny number of ex-offenders have done so.
Iowa's current system is riddled with inconsistencies. When ineligible felons or ex-offenders who are uncertain of their rights try to register on Election Day, the way they are handled depends on where they live.
Some may be appropriately barred from voting, while others can't get an answer about whether they are eligible. Some may be allowed to vote, only to be prosecuted later for election misconduct under a criminal investigation championed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz.
That's because some polling places use electronic systems that identify potential felons to prevent them from voting or require them to cast provisional ballots if they insist they are eligible. But more than a third of Iowa's 99 counties still use paper systems that cannot check for ineligible felons until after votes are cast.
When officials do check, the state's list of 46,000 felons may erroneously include people whose rights should have been restored years ago or other mistakes that could disenfranchise eligible voters, Schultz has acknowledged.
"This is more of a systematic problem we need to fix," Schultz told The Associated Press. "We cannot have people who are eligible to vote being stopped from voting. At the same time, we can't have people who aren't supposed to be voting, voting."
Black Hawk County's experience in the 2012 election illustrates the disparities.
County Auditor Grant Veeder said some polling places used an electronic system called Precinct Atlas, deployed by a majority of Iowa's counties, to identify 15 felons as they registered. They were required to cast provisional ballots, giving them the chance to later prove eligibility. None did and their votes were rejected, he said.
But other precincts haven't adopted the system because of funding shortages and poll workers who don't want to make the change. In those county precincts, eight ineligible felons managed to vote in 2012.
Their status as ineligible felons wasn't caught until later, when their names were added to the state voter registration list. They made initial court appearances last week on election misconduct charges.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said that elections officials have let down former offenders, who are advised to "err on the side of caution" and not vote if they're unsure.
"We don't have the system and haven't invested the money to clear the air for these people who need to know whether they're eligible or not," Weipert said.
Meanwhile, three Cerro Gordo County men had their ballots unfairly disqualified in the 2012 election because they were erroneously included on the felons list, a problem divulged last week. One was charged with a felony but hadn't been convicted, yet he still ended up on the list. The others should have had their voting rights restored in 2005 but remained on the list.
Schultz's office has asked counties for information on provisional ballots that were rejected due to felon status in the last two years to determine whether others were wrongly disenfranchised. That review is ongoing.
He said in a Feb. 3 report that the felons list appears to have never been updated to remove individuals who had their voting rights restored under a 2005 executive order from Gov. Tom Vilsack. Some court officials have erroneously reported individuals as felons when they pleaded guilty to lesser charges or received deferred judgments, he said.
State law gives Schultz's office the responsibility for maintaining the list. But Schultz said that his office acts as a "file cabinet" for information on felony convictions and voting rights shared by court officials and the governor's office.
"If it's inaccurate, it's really tough to do anything about it," said Schultz, a Republican running for Congress.
Schultz called for the formation of a state task force to fix errors on the list, calling it a "monumental task." Lawmakers should consider creating a fund to help counties adopt electronic systems, he said.
Meanwhile, Schultz has used federal money to pay for a two-year state criminal investigation to identify and prosecute ineligible voters. Several felons have been charged.
Among the cases he's publicized is that of Kelli Jo Griffin, who voted in a 2013 municipal election in Montrose. When she registered, an initial database check didn't flag her as an ineligible felon. But after she voted, a subsequent check discovered she'd been convicted of a felony when she had a different last name.
As a habitual offender, she faces a minimum prison sentence of three years. Attorney Curtis Dial said she'll fight the perjury charge at trial next month, saying it's been devastating after she turned her life around.
"I don't know why the state is proceeding with charges such as this," he said.
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