Release of Iowa Fraud Investigation Rekindles Debate


[Image courtesy of eastvillagedesmoines]

Back in February, I blogged about the wrap-up of Iowa’s controversial vote fraud investigation, which has divided the state and made Secretary of State Matt Schultz – now a candidate for Congress – a lightning rod for debate.

Late last week, the state released some initial figures in a report stemming from the investigation. The Associated Press has more:

A two-year investigation of voter fraud in Iowa turned up 117 cases of illegal voting but only 27 people have been charged so far, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz said Thursday when releasing a final report of the probe.

Schultz began the investigation in 2012 after cross-checking Iowa voter records with driver’s license records from the Iowa Department of Transportation. Schultz said it appeared more than 3,000 individuals had registered to vote between 2010 and 2012 that had identified themselves in DOT records as non-citizens.

He entered an agreement with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to pay $250,000 over two years to look into the cases.

“There are people who voted who weren’t supposed to, and this is a situation where we tried to do something about it,” Schultz said. “I think it was the right thing to do and I stand by that.”

After the DCI compared the names Schultz provided with a federal immigration database, potential cases of non-citizen voters were narrowed to 147. In addition, the DCI agents looked into alleged cases of ineligible felons voting and began investigating 68 of those. Another 23 cases were investigated and included voters suspected of casting ballots in two states and those voting in Iowa but living elsewhere.

Out of the total 238 cases, the agents confirmed 117 illegal voting ones.

A key factor in the reaction to the report has been caution on the part of prosecutors in moving forward:

The 27 people charged so far include six who have pleaded guilty, one found not guilty by a jury, and four whose cases were dismissed. One person was given a deferred prosecution and 15 remain in the court system.

Schultz said county attorneys have the discretion to decide whether to file charges. Some decline to prosecute when it appears the voting was a mistake or a misunderstanding, or there was not clear intent to break the law.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, for example, has declined to bring charges against a few people who in recent elections cast absentee ballots, then mistakenly voted a second time at the polls. He indicated it was a matter of fairness not to charge someone with a felony for an innocent mistake.

Election misconduct is a class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $7,500 fine …

Some legal experts predicted that juries might be hesitant to convict in these cases. And that turned out to be true in the first trial stemming from Schultz’s voter fraud investigation.

A jury in Lee County took less than 40 minutes on March 20 to reject the prosecution’s argument that Kelli Jo Griffin intentionally lied on a voter registration form she filled out for a municipal election in the southeastern Iowa town of Montrose.

Griffin had lost her voting rights following a 2008 felony conviction for delivery of less than 100 grams of cocaine. She testified that she believed her right to vote had been restored when she left probation last year.

Schultz said he also is forwarding to prosecutors 100 cases of people possibly voting in Iowa and another state in the same election [not specified in the article, but likely a result of Iowa’s participation in the Kansas crosscheck].

A key flashpoint in the debate is Schultz’s decision to use Help America Vote Act funds to cover some of the costs of the investigation – which is just as divisive as the investigation itself:

Critics of the investigation say Schultz has spent too much time and money pursuing cases of a small number of voters who had no intent to break the law.

“When you dig into the numbers you see that Iowa has expended tremendous resources on this foolhardy and wasteful investigation,” [the ACLU’s Rita] Bettis said. “Iowa’s secretary of state should work to help people gain access to the ballot box, not seek to make it harder and undermine our state’s well-earned reputation for trusted elections.”

Schultz said the cost of the investigation comes to about 6½ cents per registered voter, a cost he believes is reasonable for upholding voting laws.

Of course, that per-registered-voter cost doesn’t tell the whole story; once the full list of prosecutions and convictions is complete, it will be possible to calculate the cost per result of this investigation. Still, as the investigation winds down it offers yet another opportunity to assess costs and benefits of identifying and punishing voter fraud.

You can bet this is going to be a big issue in the race to replace Schultz – stay tuned!

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