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.