DES MOINES - Iowa elections officials don't have a uniform or accurate way to check whether potential voters are ineligible felons - a systematic failure that has resulted in people being wrongly disenfranchised or allowed to vote illegally.
In interviews with The Associated Press, state and county officials blame a lack of funding, disparate use of technology at polling places and record-keeping errors. Major shifts in state policy have exacerbated the problem by creating confusion among offenders and bureaucrats.
Attorney General Eric Holder called on Iowa and other states Tuesday to restore voting rights for former inmates, saying that millions of citizens are unfairly disenfranchised. He criticized Gov. Terry Branstad's 2011 order requiring former felons to apply to regain their voting rights instead of having them automatically restored, noting that only a tiny number of ex-offenders have done so.
Iowa's current system is riddled with inconsistencies. When ineligible felons or ex-offenders who are uncertain of their rights try to register on Election Day, the way they are handled depends on where they live.
Some may be appropriately barred from voting, while others can't get an answer about whether they are eligible. Some may be allowed to vote, only to be prosecuted later for election misconduct under a criminal investigation championed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz.
That's because some polling places use electronic systems that identify potential felons to prevent them from voting or require them to cast provisional ballots if they insist they are eligible. But more than a third of Iowa's 99 counties still use paper systems that cannot check for ineligible felons until after votes are cast.
When officials do check, the state's list of 46,000 felons may erroneously include people whose rights should have been restored years ago or other mistakes that could disenfranchise eligible voters, Schultz has acknowledged.
"This is more of a systematic problem we need to fix," Schultz told The Associated Press. "We cannot have people who are eligible to vote being stopped from voting. At the same time, we can't have people who aren't supposed to be voting, voting."
Black Hawk County's experience in the 2012 election illustrates the disparities.
County Auditor Grant Veeder said some polling places used an electronic system called Precinct Atlas, deployed by a majority of Iowa's counties, to identify 15 felons as they registered. They were required to cast provisional ballots, giving them the chance to later prove eligibility. None did and their votes were rejected, he said.
But other precincts haven't adopted the system because of funding shortages and poll workers who don't want to make the change. In those county precincts, eight ineligible felons managed to vote in 2012.
Their status as ineligible felons wasn't caught until later, when their names were added to the state voter registration list. They made initial court appearances last week on election misconduct charges.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said that elections officials have let down former offenders, who are advised to "err on the side of caution" and not vote if they're unsure.
"We don't have the system and haven't invested the money to clear the air for these people who need to know whether they're eligible or not," Weipert said.