In 2013, Kelli Griffin went to vote in a local election in Montrose, Iowa. She had been through some hard times — a survivor of domestic abuse who had suffered from drug addiction, she was convicted in 2008 of a drug-related crime, and served five years probation. But now Griffin was turning her life around, and voting was a rite of passage. She even took her four kids to the polls to teach them about the democratic process. “I felt good,” said Griffin, 41. “I mean, it’s one of the steps to being back into society, to fulfilling that I am just like everybody else. I mean, I’ve overcome a lot.” But what happened next would make clear that in the eyes of the law, Griffin wasn’t at all like everybody else. It would set this shy stay-at-home mom who never graduated college on a path to challenging her state’s highest officials. And it would help spark the latest step in a growing push-back against a set of laws that, five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, still disenfranchise millions of Americans.
Not long after voting, Griffin got a worrying phone call from an agent with Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation. He was parked outside her house, and he said he wanted to verify the signature on her voter registration form. Last January, Griffin was charged with perjury in connection with illegal voting.
The charges stemmed from an aggressive investigation into voter fraud led by Iowa’s then-secretary-of-state, Matt Schultz, a Republican who had run for office on a pledge to impose a strict voter ID law to combat fraud. Schultz quickly blasted out a press release touting the charges against Griffin and eight others accused of voting illegally.
Schultz, who last year ran unsuccessfully for Congress and is now the attorney for a suburban Iowa county, didn’t return two calls for comment.