IOWA CITY - Thousands of Iowans convicted of crimes are ineligible to vote Tuesday under a policy imposed by Gov. Terry Branstad while others remain uncertain on whether they can cast ballots because of confusing state laws and guidance, records show.
Branstad signed an order last year reversing a 2005 policy by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in which felons automatically regained their voting rights once they were discharged from state supervision. The change made Iowa one of four states where felons must apply to have voting rights restored, a lengthy bureaucratic process.
Applicants must submit documents showing they've fully paid their fines and restitution, answer 31 detailed questions and request a $15 criminal history check and their credit report, a requirement some call unprecedented.
Critics say many have been deterred from applying by the paperwork and because they don't want to submit their credit history to the governor's office, which uses the report to confirm that court debts are satisfied. The Associated Press reported on the policy in June, and civil rights groups and Democrats called for reforms to make it easier.
But Branstad hasn't budged, arguing that crime victims should receive restitution before voting rights are restored. And records released from his office in response to an AP request detail lingering roadblocks and confusion.
Branstad has restored citizenship rights for less than 20 offenders since January 2011 out of roughly 13,000 who completed prison and parole sentences in that timeframe, according to Department of Corrections data. Those offenders would have all been immediately restored under Vilsack's policy.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor's office expedited action on applications, restoring voting rights this week for five individuals, "to ensure that anyone who was pending restoration was able to vote this year."
But only a fraction of those eligible applied, and many remain unclear about whether they ever lost their rights or got them back. Iowa residents convicted of "infamous crimes" lose their voting rights - a category that includes felonies and some aggravated misdemeanors - until they're restored.
Branstad's deputy legal counsel, Larry Johnson, told applicant Hector Padilla of Ottumwa in a recent letter that he didn't answer all the questions, submit a credit history or criminal background check, and only the first page of a letter from his attorney came through.
"Your application is incomplete and has not been processed," Johnson wrote Padilla, who did not follow up.
Johnson also told two citizens convicted of second-offense operating while intoxicated, an aggravated misdemeanor, that he had to check with state lawyers on whether that disqualified them. The Iowa Attorney General's Office concluded their offense was not an "infamous crime" and, "you did not lose your voting rights," Johnson wrote.
One of them, Doug Smith, said a governor's office worker told him he needed to apply after several phone calls starting last December, and then took months to mail the application. He obtained the necessary paperwork and applied this summer, before being told he'd never lost his rights in the first place.
"They put me through a whole lot of unnecessary stuff," he said. "I'm willing to do it, but I think a lot of people would just throw their hands up."
The AG's office says any crime where the maximum sentence is incarceration in state prison for more than a year - regardless of whether or where the person serves time - forfeits one's voting rights. Spokesman Geoff Greenwood said OWI-2nd doesn't qualify because incarceration would be at "a county jail or a community-based correctional facility."
But that statement surprised Corrections spokeswoman Lettie Prell, who said she thought that was an "infamous crime" punishable by up to 2 years in prison. No agency maintains a list of which crimes fit that category.
The governor's office informed others who recently inquired that their rights were restored by Vilsack's order because they apparently finished their sentences before 2005. Johnson enclosed a copy of Vilsack's order and suggested they take it to their county auditor when they register to vote.
Dubuque County Auditor Denise Dolan said elections officials can check a database of felons to determine whether citizens lost voting rights. But she said each case isn't clear, and she's had to check with prosecutors for guidance.
She said questions abound. "Was it a misdemeanor or felony? Did they actually serve the sentence? Was it suspended? Was it finished under Gov. Vilsack, Culver or Branstad?"
The stakes are high because of a criminal investigation into election irregularities ordered by Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who has warned that ineligible felons who vote will be prosecuted. Fraud charges were filed recently against two ex-convicts who registered to vote; one of them told investigators he thought his rights were restored.
The few restored under Branstad include Henry Straight of Arthur, who learned last week he was finally successful after a yearlong effort. Straight had been disenfranchised after he was convicted as a Wisconsin teenager of stealing a pop machine and fleeing authorities in the 1980s.
Straight said his biggest roadblock was getting proof that he paid his fines because Wisconsin officials had destroyed the records. After hours on the phone, he said the law firm he hired to help eventually obtained a letter confirming he must have paid his debts.
Straight called the restoration process "about impossible" in June, but now says it wasn't so bad.
"It was just time-consuming and a little bit of money," said Straight, who's voting for the first time. "For the average person, I recommend they hire a lawyer to do the paperwork."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.