Task force formed to fix flawed Iowa felon voter list met just once, will disband

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — A task force created to fix errors in Iowa's database of ineligible felon voters met just once for two hours, failing to resolve a problem that has disenfranchised at least a dozen people, records show.

Secretary of State Matt Schultz formed the group in April after finding 12 cases in which errors on the 50,000-name list resulted in the wrongful rejection of ballots from non-felons or people who had their voting rights restored. Schultz said the panel would develop a "long-term solution to fix inaccuracies contained in the state's felon file."

More than four months passed before the group held its first and only meeting Aug. 29, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the public records law. "If we get done early, so be it," then-Secretary of State general counsel Charlie Smithson emailed members before the meeting, scheduled for four hours.

Smithson defended the task force's work, saying the meeting got government agencies talking to each other and led to incremental progress on short-term solutions. The group is expected to disband without producing a report.

"I don't know that this group had the authority or power to come up with a long-term fix," Smithson said.

Secretary of State-elect Paul Pate, who replaces Schultz next month, said Thursday he would study the problem and "figure out a way to get us back on track."

Under a policy reinstated by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011, Iowa is one of three states in which felons are disenfranchised for life unless their rights are restored by the governor. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a lawsuit last month arguing that the practice is unconstitutional, seeking to restore voting rights for thousands of former offenders. Between July 2005 and January 2011, Democratic governors had automatically restored offenders' rights once they left state supervision.

The changes have created confusion among former offenders about their eligibility, while the list's errors exacerbate the problem.

The list contains names of some offenders whose rights were restored by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005. Workers have recently started to study Department of Corrections data, as time permits, to ensure all of those individuals are removed from the list, state elections director Sarah Reisetter said, calling it "tedious work."

In addition, the list includes some people who were wrongly reported by court officials as being felons — for instance, when they pleaded guilty to lesser charges. A project to allow court officials to report that information electronically, rather than by paper and having the names entered manually, is taking longer than expected and should be completed early next year, Reisetter said.

Schultz has told lawmakers that it would take an investigator more than 22 years to review all 50,000 names for accuracy, a "monumental task." Instead, his office has advised local officials on how to verify whether someone on the list is actually ineligible — which can involve contacting multiple agencies and databases and still not always having a clear-cut answer.

"They haven't said, 'Here's the fix to the problem. It's, 'Here's how to deal with it'," said Cerro Gordo County Auditor Ken Kline. "The problem needs to be fixed at its source as opposed to having to deal with bad information."

Kline complained in January after discovering three votes in his county that were wrongly rejected in the 2012 election. An investigation uncovered nine more cases statewide.

Reisetter has created a 13-minute webinar to advise local officials on how to use two databases to check whether an individual is a felon. Steps can involve researching Iowa code, contacting court officials, and knowing limitations in each database. Then, officials must check with law enforcement to determine when sentences were discharged and whether voting rights were restored.

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder, one of five task force members, drew a blank when asked what the group accomplished. He said the webinar wasn't particularly "user-friendly."

"It's an area that needs more work," he said.

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