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For Years, Errors in Iowa’s Felon List Have Disenfranchised Eligible Voters

by Matt Clarke 

Iowa’s electronic database of registered voters, I-VOTERS, contains the names of about 69,000 convicted felons who are barred from casting ballots. But in June 2016, Iowa’s Secretary of State found that 2,591 of those names belonged to people who were not in fact felons. Those names were restored to the list of registered voters, but the error rate they represented – around four percent – has Governor Kim Reynolds considering automatic restoration of voting rights to felons who complete their sentences.

The consequences for being included on the list of prohibited voters can be harsh. After he voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Grant Ferguson was arrested and spent $5,000 in legal costs to resolve the charges.

Iowa has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the nation, denying voting rights to any person ever convicted of a felony unless that person’s rights have been restored by the governor or the president (Iowa Code § 48A.6). So why is such an important list riddled with errors?

The answer lies in a cumbersome bottom-up and top-down process. Court clerks in each county provide the names of newly convicted felons to the Iowa court administrator, who then passes them to the Secretary of State to add to the I-VOTERS database. The Secretary of State also sends the updated list back to county auditors. As he told the auditors in 2017, Mike Sievers, with the Secretary of State’s election division, said the names are only “potential” matches with actual convicted felons.

“It is up to your office to make the final determination whether a match is referring to the same person,” he added.

An analysis of convicted felons in the I-VOTERS database conducted by the Des Moines Register in 2018 – two years after the Secretary of State discovered problems with the list – found the names of some people charged with a felony but not convicted, as well as others who had received deferred adjudication – meaning their record was expunged after they completed their terms of probation. The Register could find no justification for at least two dozen names on the list.

In February 2019, Iowa court administrator Todd Nuccio directed staff in county courts to begin conducting monthly manual checks of names on the convicted felon list. Sievers also instructed county auditors to verify any potential match, record the person’s information on the “felon review form” and not to cancel any voter’s registration record until the conviction had been verified with the appropriate court clerk. 

But the auditors said they didn’t have the time or personnel to verify every name on the list. As the Lynn County auditor pointed out in 2017, doing so would require checking with 14 clerks of courts and officials for two federal court districts. 

In December 2013, Matt Anderson, an agent with the state Division of Criminal Investigation, verified that there were erroneous names on the list, including people who were charged with a felony but not convicted as well as those whose voting rights had been restored by the governor. He said to verify the voting status of everybody on the list would require someone with his level of expertise and access to law enforcement databases – of which county auditors have neither. 

The ACLU of Iowa has identified people who were erroneously disenfranchised due to similarities with names on the convicted felon list. In one case, a father’s vote was discounted because his son’s name was listed. In other cases the names were not that similar, such as Michael Thomas Huss and Michael Anthony Thomas. 

After Florida voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 for automatic re-enfranchisement of most felons who had completed their sentences, and then-Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell created a similar mechanism for non-violent felons in 2016, Iowa and Kentucky remain the only states that require action by the governor or president to restore voting rights to convicted felons. Under an executive order, former governors granted automatic restoration of voting rights to non-violent Iowa felons from 2005 to 2011, until Governor Terry Branstad took office and rescinded that order.

Iowa is now considering an amendment to the state constitution to effect reenfranchisement permanently, though in the meantime it could again be accomplished by an executive order from the governor. That would please Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan organization based at the New York University School of Law.

“It’s great they [the governor and lawmakers] are moving towards a constitutional amendment, but it’s very important given the length of that process that they do what they can in the interim,” Morales-Doyle said.

According to a January 30, 2019 news report, Governor Reynolds’ plan to amend the constitution faces pushback from legislators who want felons to pay all outstanding restitution before they regain their voting rights.

“As I hear that idea, it says: Rich felons could vote, poor felons could not,” noted Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey.

Over 550 names were added to the convicted felon list between December 2018 and February 2019, according to records kept by Secretary of State Paul Pate, who said he “share[s] the frustrations people have with a system that is not perfect.” His office has created a flow chart to help county auditors navigate the process of verifying names on the list. The chart contains seven steps for each name.

Polk County auditor Jamie Fitzgerald Fitzgerald said he doesn’t believe the database’s errors can be resolved even by using manual checks.

“At some point, someone has got to take ownership of this list,” he stated. “Until they clean up the database, there are always going to be problems.”

Meanwhile, cases like Ferguson’s continue to occur. The 44-year-old, who lost his voting rights in 2005 with his third drunk-driving conviction, thought they had been restored as the judge had recommended when he completed his sentence in 2009. His probation officer told him they would be, but the state didn’t have his address on file and couldn’t mail him the restoration certificate.

When he showed up to vote in November 2016, Ferguson told poll workers who flagged him as a felon that his rights had been restored. They allowed him to cast a provisional ballot. The county attorney at the time, Wayne Reisetter, charged him with felonies for claiming eligibility on his registration form, oath, ballot and absentee ballot application. Reisetter said whether Ferguson’s rights should have been restored didn’t matter.

“The fact is, they weren’t,” he said.

To keep his legal bills from mounting even higher, Ferguson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to a fine.

“I got the short end of the stick because they didn’t want to admit they were wrong,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.” 

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Sources: Des Moines Register, omaha.com

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