February 4, 2014

Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz defended his office Monday against what he says is unfair criticism after it was revealed that three northern Iowa voters had their ballots tossed out in the 2012 presidential election because they were wrongly classified as felons ineligible to vote.

The three voters were required to cast provisional ballots when their names appeared in the database of felons. One man, Matthew Pace, appeared on a list of felons reported to the Secretary of State's office by the Cerro Gordo County clerk of court in 2007. When he showed up to vote Nov. 6, 2012, his name was flagged and he was told he had to cast a provisional ballot. Cerro Gordo County election officials contacted the Secretary of State's office to check the status of the voters with provisional ballots, and Schultz's office confirmed the three individuals were on the felons list.

Schultz, a Republican, frequently has faced criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups for his aggressive pursuit of voter fraud. His critics say his investigations intimidate immigrant and minority groups and scare many away from voting.

Schultz has hired an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent to investigate the issue for two years at a cost of $280,000 in federal funds.

Sen. Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat, said that money might have been better spent improving on election systems to ensure information is accurate.

"I say it's better spent getting the right technology implemented in your office," he said. "We're still operating with a technologically unsophisticated operation."

Schultz issues frequent news releases when charges are brought against people accused of registering or voting illegally. However, the issue of the three voters' disenfranchised was not made public until Cerro Gordo County Auditor Ken Kline, also a Republican, spoke out.

Schultz said in an eight-page report filed Monday with the committee that his office had no indication that the information in the list of felons was erroneous.

"Without any indication or report that the information was incorrect, the staff had no indication of a need to investigate further," he said.

An investigation by an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent later determined that Pace had never been convicted of the felony charge and his vote should have been counted.

The two other voters also were required to cast provisional ballots when their names appeared on the list.

Jay Lindsay's name had been on the list since May 2002. His right to vote had been restored by an executive order signed by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005, which gave voting rights back to felons after they completed their sentences.

Darrell Butner's name has been on the felons list since 1997. His right also had been restored by Vilsack's order.

Schultz said Iowa online court records do not indicate that the men's citizenship rights were restored and no record of restoration of rights exists in the Iowa Corrections Offender Network database.

Schultz said the list of felons in the statewide voter registration system currently contains 46,768 names. Going through and confirming they all are accurately listed would take years, he claimed.

Schultz said Iowa State Court Administrator David Boyd has informed him that court officials have launched an internal review to see if any errors occurred in the transmission of data between the judicial branch and the secretary of state's office for the three voters in Cerro Gordo County.

Boyd did not immediately respond Monday to a message seeking comment.

Currently, court clerks from Iowa's 99 counties are required to send a monthly report to the secretary of state's office listing individuals convicted of felonies. The names are placed in the statewide voter registration system. When a registered voter's record matches those in the felony database, the voter is sent a notice informing them their registration has been cancelled and telling them to contact officials if it's wrong.

Schultz said while court officials are instructed to review the reports carefully for accuracy before they're sent to the secretary of state's office, it's clear the reports include errors.

"The frequency of these errors is currently unknown," he said.

Gov. Terry Branstad said the issue needs careful scrutiny to ensure clean and honest elections.

"I would say you had some felons vote illegally and you had some people that weren't felons who were denied their right to vote," Branstad said Monday. "We need to be very careful."

Schultz, who has announced his candidacy for the U.S. House 3rd District seat, has launched numerous criminal investigations into voter fraud since taking office in 2011 as the state's top election official.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, the Senate State Government Committee chairman, told Schultz state law makes him ultimately responsible for determining a voter's eligibility.

"This is not our finest hour when it comes to elections law in Iowa," said Danielson, a Democrat. "We hope to use this experience as a lesson learned."