Earlier this month, two Iowa felons were arrested and charged with felony and aggravated misdemeanor counts of election fraud because they had registered to vote when they picked up their new driver’s licenses. One, Stacy Brown, told an investigator from the Major Crimes Unit of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation that she’d registered because “she was in a hurry and wasn’t paying attention [to] what she was signing.” The other, Jason Rawlin, told the investigator that he believed his voting rights had been restored following his release from prison. Two years ago, both of them would have been in the clear. Yet on the day that he reclaimed the governor’s mansion in January 2011, Republican Terry Branstad overturned a 2005 executive order that had automatically restored the franchise to released convicts. Branstad hailed the reversal as a “major priority” of incoming Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican who’d been elected on a platform of smoking out voter fraud in the swing state.
The now-defunct executive order, signed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, had restored voting rights to an estimated 100,000 Iowans. Branstad’s new order, by contrast, has made Iowa one of just four states where felons’ voting rights are rarely restored. Few Iowa felons have tried to win back the vote since 2011; only about a dozen have succeeded, but only after submitting time-consuming applications that require a criminal history check and full credit report. Critics have slammed the process as part of a broader policy of voter suppression and intimidation that disproportionately targets minorities and the poor. But Schultz has said the new rules will “send a message to Iowa’s voters that their voting privilege is sacred and will not be compromised.”
The October arrests came on the heels of three noncitizens in Council Bluffs being charged with felonies for registering to vote. Both were small victories for Schultz’s ongoing effort to track down ineligible voters. In January, he proposed a new voter ID bill intented to allay concerns about a bill based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council that had first passed in the Iowa House in 2011. Though he acknowledged that voter fraud hadn’t been much of a problem in the state, he said he wanted to close a loophole, pointing to provocateur James O’Keefe’s undercover “investigation” of voter fraud in New Hampshire. A Republican-backed voter ID bill died in the state Senate.
Advertise on MotherJones.com
After that, Schultz switched his focus to purging the state’s voter rolls. “Our office obtained evidence that noncitizens have voted in every election for the past several cycles,” explains Chad Olsen, the secretary of state’s chief of staff. Schultz compared a list of noncitizens with driver’s licenses with the state’s voter rolls and determined that as many as 3,500 were currently registered to vote and that as many as 1,200 may have voted in 2010. Schultz has not made his data public. It is possible, however, that people listed as noncitizens in the driver’s license database became citizens before registering to vote.