IOWA CITY (AP) — An Iowa felon arrested in a state-ordered crackdown on alleged voter fraud has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for improperly registering to vote, the first conviction under a costly and controversial effort that was examined Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.
Jason Anthony Rawlin of Indianola pleaded guilty Dec. 14 to fraudulent practices in the third-degree under a plea agreement with Warren County prosecutors, who dropped a felony charge of election misconduct.
County Attorney John Criswell said the lesser charge was justified because Rawlin didn’t actually vote. Rawlin, 37, admitted that he checked a box on a voter registration application saying he was not a felon when he knew otherwise. Rawlin will pay about $1,000 in fines and court costs and will not face any incarceration.
Rawlin’s was the first conviction under the effort by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a first-term Republican, to find and prosecute potentially ineligible voters such as felons and noncitizens. Schultz’s office 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.
Schultz defended his “election integrity efforts” Wednesday during testimony in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, saying it has led to charges against Rawlin and seven others. The committee was examining problems in last month’s election, including long lines in Florida and allegations of voter suppression. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa and the committee’s ranking member, invited Schultz to testify.
“Anyone who says that voter fraud does not exist should look at the numbers that have been produced in a few short months,” Schultz told the committee.
Under his effort, charges have been filed against four Canadians, a Bosnian and a Mexican who allegedly voted in 2010 and 2011 even though they were noncitizens, and another felon who registered to vote. Five people have pleaded not guilty, with some arguing they believed they were eligible. Two Canadians have apparently left the U.S., and warrants have been issued for their arrest.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, suggested voter fraud was not a widespread problem if Schultz could find only a handful of cases out of 1.6 million Iowans who voted in November. Durbin also made a joke after another expert witness testified that Canadians “for some strange reason” were responsible for many of the voting irregularities in Arizona. “It’s a serious problem,” Durbin deadpanned, amid laughter in the room.
But Schultz said that many more criminal cases would be brought in Iowa in the coming months and that weeding out ineligible voters increased the public’s confidence in elections.
Rawlin’s case highlights the confusion over Iowa felons’ voting rights. A change ordered by Gov. Terry Branstad in January 2011 has made Iowa one of the only states in the nation to require ex-felons to apply to have their rights reinstated once they complete their sentences. The process for reinstatement is so cumbersome that, as of last month, fewer than 20 offenders had their rights restored since then.
Rawlin filled out an application to register to vote in August while obtaining a state identification card. A check by Warren County revealed that Rawlin was possibly a convicted felon, and officials notified the secretary of state’s office, which asked DCI agent Dan Dawson to investigate.
An affidavit from Dawson says Rawlin had multiple felony convictions, including a 2005 forgery case.
Rawlin told the investigator that he thought his rights had been restored once he got out of prison in 2001 for an earlier case. Under a state policy in effect through 2010, offenders automatically won their voting rights back after they left state supervision. But Rawlin remained on parole, and was ineligible to have his rights restored.
Rawlin complained that “there should be signage posted within the licensing station to let people know if they can or can’t vote,” Dawson wrote.
“I then reminded Rawlin that there was an instruction notice posted next to the digital key pad,” Dawson wrote. “Rawlin stated he was busy, there was a line of people behind him, and he signed it so he could leave.”