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Trial shows Iowa's tough stance on ex-felon voting

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KEOKUK, Iowa (AP) -

A former drug offender went on trial Wednesday for illegally voting, in a case that spotlights Iowa's unusually harsh policies toward voting rights for former offenders.

Kelli Jo Griffin, 40, voted in a local election Nov. 5, registering and casting a ballot in the uncontested mayoral and council election in her southeastern Iowa town of Montrose, population 878. Elections officials didn't learn until afterward that Griffin had been convicted of a cocaine delivery charge in 2008, and therefore should have been ineligible to vote under Iowa's disenfranchisement policies.

Griffin has pleaded not guilty to felony perjury. Lee County Attorney Michael Short said he intends to prove that Griffin lied on her registration form when she said she wasn't an ineligible felon. She's charged as a habitual offender, which means she would receive a minimum sentence of three years in prison if convicted.

Her attorney, Curt Dial, painted Griffin as a mother who has turned around her once out-of-control life and made an honest mistake when she voted. He said widespread confusion exists among ex-felons about their voting rights given Iowa's policy changes on the issue.

Judge Mary Ann Brown seated a 12-member jury Wednesday for the trial, which is expected to last three days at the county courthouse in Keokuk.

Griffin is one of 26 people who have been charged with voting-related crimes under a two-year investigation championed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican who has vowed to prove that voter fraud exists. Most of the charges are against ex-felons or noncitizens accused of registering or voting. Democrats and voting rights advocates have attacked the $280,000 investigation as a wasteful fishing expedition, while Schultz has defended it as improving election integrity.

Griffin is the first to take her case to trial. About 15 others are pending, and the Division of Criminal Investigation said last month that it referred findings in 80 additional cases to prosecutors to decide whether to file charges. Lawyers say it's unusual nationwide for a voting fraud defendant to gamble at trial rather than plead to lesser charges, given the potential punishment.

Short and Dial took turns questioning potential jurors. One woman was excused after telling the court she had decided Griffin was guilty. Another said she believed the potential prison term for Griffin was "a little harsh." A third joked that he learned about executive orders, such as the one Republican Gov. Terry Branstad issued restricting voting rights for ex-felons in 2011, only "when my mom tells me about them."

The case comes as voting rights advocates intensify their criticism of Iowa's status as one of four states in which ex-offenders must apply to the governor to have their rights restored.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on Iowa last month to automatically restore voting rights for offenders who have served their sentences, saying the policy disenfranchises tens of thousands of people. Critics say the policy conflicts with Iowa's history of clean elections and civic participation, noting that the state has election-day registration and high turnout rates in presidential elections.

Branstad has defended the policy he reinstated, saying the application process ensures offenders are rehabilitating and paying their restitution and court costs before they are eligible to vote again. Forty people completed the process in three years out of thousands of eligible ex-offenders.

Before Branstad's order, Iowa had automatically restored voting rights to offenders once they were discharged from state supervision under a 2005 executive order signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. The 180-degree change has confused many former offenders about whether they can vote. Griffin had her rights restored in 2004 after an earlier felony.

Compounding the confusion, Schultz said last month that his office's list of 47,000 ineligible felon voters is filled with mistakes, including thousands who may have had their rights restored. Elections officials discovered that three people had their ballots wrongly rejected in 2012 as a result, and are reviewing whether other such cases happened statewide.

"Iowa has changed its felon disenfranchisement laws so often in the last nine years that it's no wonder ex-offenders are confused," said Jon Sherman, lawyer with the Fair Elections Legal Network, a nonpartisan group in Washington. "Whatever happens in Ms. Griffin's particular case, it should be clear that the state has failed to adequately educate the public or to adequately maintain its own list of ineligible felons."

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