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Iowa Watchdog

Virginia eyes confusing Iowa program as road map to restore felon voting rights

7/3/2013

In January, a new governor, who could reverse this policy with the stroke of a pen, will take control of the state.

In January, a new governor, who could reverse this policy with the stroke of a pen, will take control of the state.

ALEXANDRIA — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent decision to automatically restore some felons’ voting rights in Virginia may not survive past this year. A plan to follow a confusing road map laid out by Iowa could further cloud the issue.

In January, a new governor will take control and could reverse the policy with the stroke of a pen.

“While both candidates in the race for governor have expressed their support for the governor’s action, there is nothing legally binding them to its continuation,” said Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s communications director. ”They will have to make that decision.”

Historically, automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons like the one McDonnell is implementing  July 15 do not survive administration changes.

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Virginia is one of four states, including Iowa and Florida, that permanently bars felons from polls, unless a governor decides to restore voting rights. Former governors in both Iowa and Florida have automated the restoration process for felons, only to have the policy withdrawn when a new governor stepped in.

Virginia is copying Iowa’s automated procedures that former Gov. Tom Vilsack implemented in mid-2005. In 2011, Gov.Terry Branstad killed the policy and reversed it to a non-automated, pre-2005 system.

As a result of the policy being changed twice in six years, confusion reigned, and felons illegally registered to vote because they were not aware the policy had changed.

The Division of Criminal Investigation agent that the Iowa Secretary of State’s office hired found several cases of felons who registered to vote illegally. Of those, most registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles, said Chad Olsen, communications director for the Secretary of States office.

Under the Motor-Voter laws, the DMV is required to offer voter registration forms to individuals renewing their drivers license. That law, and the change in policy, confused felons.

“When someone who is a government official puts a voter registration form in front of you, you might assume you can register to vote,” Olsen said.

One case highlights the problem.

The first felon to be convicted of voter fraud since the automated restoration system expired was Jason Anthony Rawlin, who failed to disclose that he was a convicted felon when he filled out a voter registration application while renewing his driver’s license in August 2012.

Rawlin told the DCI agent who was investigating his case that he thought his rights had been restored after being released from prison in 2001.

For Rawlin, however, the law did not apply. He was on parole during the time when automatic-rights restoration was in effect, making him ineligible.

While the policy changes have caused confusion for Iowans, there is a level of personal responsibility each voter must bear, Olsen said.

“If you are someone who has lost your rights, you bear some responsibility to be informed,” he said.

No statewide data exists on the number of voter fraud incidents prior to 2010 because Iowa counties were not required to collect and submit the information to the state.

Voter integrity advocacy groups like True The Vote say they are still digging through 2010 data by individual counties.

But a University of Pennsylvania paper by Marc Meredith and Michael Morse titled “The Politics of the Restoration of Ex-Felon Voting Rights: The Case of Iowa” offers insight.

The authors cross-checked full names and birth dates of felons discharged in 2011 with those who voted in the 2012 election. They found 322 instances of names and birth dates appearing on both lists.

Since only 20 felons have had their rights restored since 2011, the data suggest that more than 300 felons may have voted illegally in Iowa.

The name-checking system may overstate the number of those who illegally voted — it does not account for Iowans who share the same name and birth date — but it is the most comprehensive data available.

“While there clearly are felons who have slipped through, it is probably not as high as they state,” Olsen said.

The takeaway for Virginia is to make sure everyone who is affected by the policy change is aware of it, but not to expect “perfect compliance,” Olsen said. “Even when it’s made more obvious, you can’t win.”

Since the state governments of Iowa and Virginia are similar, and Iowa’s automated process was “successful,” the Old Dominion will be copying Iowa’s methods, said Edargo Cortes, director of the Advancement Project’s Virginia Voting Rights Restoration campaign.

The Advancement Project is one of the groups working with the Virginia governor’s office to iron-out the logistics of the policy change.

“Tens of thousands of people who have lost their rights (in Iowa) have been restored,” Edargo said.

However, “it wasn’t active long enough to get through the backlog” of post-release felons, he said.

Here’s how the program works: The governor’s office would receive a comprehensive list from the Department of Corrections of all felons who had been discharged from the criminal justice system during the previous month.  The governor would restore their voting rights automatically. The former convict would receive a certificate by mail notifying them their rights had been restored and can then register to vote.

But the potential for privacy violations and voter fraud is increased by sending notification certificates through the Postal Service, Meredith said.

“If you do notification by mail, one real concern you have is that the addresses you have on file can become stale really quickly,” Meredith said. “With more than one person in the house living with them, the info may not get transmitted (to the ex-felons).”

In Iowa, many of the letters notifying former felons of the rights restoration were returned to the governors office. Those who never received certification still remain on the list of felons ineligible to vote, Olsen said.

One key difference between Iowa and Virginia, however, is that Virginia lacks a comprehensive database.

Without one, Virginia has no way of notifying ex-felons. Watchdog.org reported last month on the effort to solve that problem.

Despite that, and historical precedence of these types of changes being short lived, policyshapers are optimistic.

“For us, the bright side is that both gubernatorial candidates have expressed support,” Cortes said.

Bre Payton is an intern for the Virginia Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact her at bre@watchdogvirginia.org.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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