KEOKUK, Iowa (AP) — A former drug offender who voted in a municipal election despite having lost her right to cast a ballot was acquitted of perjury Thursday, in the first trial stemming from Iowa's two-year investigation into voter fraud.
Jurors rejected the prosecution's argument that Kelli Jo Griffin intentionally lied on a voter registration form before casting a ballot in an uncontested mayoral and council election in the southeastern Iowa town of Montrose. Griffin, a 40-year-old mother of young children, would have faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Griffin had lost her voting rights following a 2008 felony conviction for delivery of cocaine. She testified that she believed her right to vote had been restored when she left probation last year, which had been the state's policy until 2011.
Lee County Attorney Michael Short argued that Griffin deliberately left blank a question on the form asking whether she was a convicted felon, saying she was trying to hide her past as a drug dealer.
Iowa is now one of four states in which ex-offenders have to apply to the governor to regain their voting rights.
Griffin is among 26 people who have been charged with election-related crimes under a two-year investigation championed by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican who vowed to find and combat voter fraud. Most are former felons or noncitizens accused of voting or registering illegally. Several have pleaded guilty to reduced charges, or had their charges dismissed. About 15 other cases remain pending, and more charges are possible after the Division of Criminal Investigation referred findings in 80 more cases to prosecutors last month.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have repeatedly attacked the $280,000 investigation as a waste of money. They say the charges brought against ex-felons are particularly unfair given widespread confusion caused by the state's changing policies.
In a 2005 executive order, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack automatically restored voting rights for ex-offenders once they were discharged from state supervision. Griffin testified that when she was convicted in the drug case in 2008, her lawyer advised her that policy meant she could vote again once she completed her five-year probation term.
But Gov. Terry Branstad, on his first day in office in 2011, rescinded Vilsack's executive order and reinstated a prior policy that requires offenders to apply individually to him to regain their voting rights. Branstad says the application process ensures that offenders are paying court costs and restitution before they can vote again. Only 40 people in three years have completed the process out of thousands of offenders.
Griffin testified that she was unaware of Branstad's policy change.
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.