A felony record can make it next to impossible to find a job and build a successful life, and in Iowa felons also lose the right to vote. Now these social outcasts face the possibility of criminal prosecution if they mistakenly register to vote. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s misguided crusade to expose voting fraud has produced no evidence of voting irregularities, but it has ensnared several people whose crime was making a mistake. These are people with felony records who registered to vote, either because they did not understand the state’s confusing registration form or because they mistakenly thought their rights had been restored. Besides discouraging Iowans with criminal records from trying to exercise their right to vote, which is in society’s interest, it now is clear that Schultz’s crusade has wrongly denied some Iowans the right to have their ballots counted. That is based on the Cerro Gordo County auditor’s discovery that he wrongly rejected ballots cast by three voters in the November 2012 presidential election on the basis of a flawed criminal-records database. If this occurred in one county, it almost certainly happened in other Iowa counties, too, as there are 46,000 names in the database. It is impossible to say how many Iowans’ votes have wrongly been rejected, but it is an outrage whatever the number.
The use of this flawed database to reject ballots should be immediately halted and the secretary of state should investigate to see how many other Iowans’ voting rights were wrongly denied.
Schultz’s office blamed the Cerro Gordo County error on the state court system, which maintains the criminal records database. That is an unacceptable excuse. It is not the duty of the courts to assess the qualifications of voters. That is the secretary’s job, and if these court records are incomplete, out of date or inaccurate, it is the duty of Iowa election officials to get the facts.
The only good news is that Cerro Gordo County prosecutors declined to file criminal charges in five other cases in which residents with felony records cast ballots (although their ballots were not counted once officials learned of their criminal records). Prosecutors declined to bring charges, because those residents lacked criminal intent. Rather, they were confused about their voting rights, and it’s easy to understand their confusion.