IOWA CITY, IA – A man convicted of delivering meth two decades ago should have been added to Iowa's database of felons banned from voting, but an embarrassing clerical error instead listed the police force that busted him.
The inclusion of the Des Moines Police Department among the names of murderers, drug dealers and other disenfranchised criminals is just one glaring example of the mistakes, wrongful additions and omissions that make the 103,000-entry database unreliable, a review by The Associated Press found.
“Holy cow!” said Des Moines police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek, who was alerted to the error as he was on his way to vote in the city’s mayoral election Tuesday. “You would think there would be an audit with something as important as voting.”
The database, which is part of the state's 14-year-old voter registration system, helps determine a person's eligibility to cast a ballot, run for public office or serve as a public official.
Antonio Espinoza-Bravo wasn't added to the database for his 1999 meth conviction or after a subsequent conviction in federal court in Iowa in 2007 that landed him in prison, the review found. Instead, the state's largest municipal police force was listed in his place.
The problems persist even though state officials have taken steps to fix the list after similar errors caused dozens of lawful Iowa voters to be disenfranchised since 2012. They are resurfacing as civil rights advocates and Gov. Kim Reynolds press lawmakers to end Iowa’s permanent voting ban for felons, which could soon be the last of its kind nationally following the recent election of a Democratic governor in Kentucky. Felons who have completed their sentences cannot vote unless they successfully apply to the governor to have their rights restored.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate announced last month that his office would undertake a major effort to fix the felon list before the 2020 election. He has assigned two employees to begin the task of reviewing all entries for accuracy and is planning to hire more, a spokesman said.
They have their work cut out for them examining the list, which includes thousands of entries that are duplicates or are missing information such as middle names, birth dates and court case numbers.
An AP review of court documents found that about 4 percent of a sample of 700 entries — more than two dozen — were for misdemeanor convictions that did not trigger the loss of voting rights.
Those on the list are flagged as ineligible by elections officials and can face daunting polling place decisions if they believe they are legal voters. They can either not vote or cast provisional ballots that would be counted after the election if they are proven eligible. The risk is that they may face criminal prosecution if they turn out to be felons who tried to illegally vote.
Meanwhile, several entities that cannot cast ballots are on the list, while some actual felons are not, the review found.
In addition to disenfranchising the state’s largest municipal police force, the database also lists the estate of a dead person whose name is misspelled, a bail bonds company, a daycare center, a gun shop and the Iowa Foot Health Center as ineligible voters.
“The State of Iowa” cannot vote due to a 2007 felony drunken driving conviction in Muscatine County, according to the list. That crime was actually committed by a man who appears to have stayed off the list until he re-offended a decade later, AP found.
Data entry errors list some offenders with dates of birth that would make them as young as 8 years old. The database identifies Gerardo Aldana as a 12-year-old felon. He’s neither: Aldana, 45, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor identity theft charge under a 2007 plea agreement that dropped a felony.
“We put it in as a lesser count. I don’t know how it got on the felon list,” said Crawford County clerk’s office employee Jackie Haase, who said the 2007 birth date was an error.
Many of the mistakes have occurred because information entered by court officials is automatically uploaded into the system.
Then-Secretary of State Matt Schultz vowed to fix the problems in 2014, after he acknowledged that database errors caused 12 voters to be disenfranchised in the 2012 presidential election. But a task force he formed to find solutions disbanded after meeting once for two hours. A recent Des Moines Register investigation found more than two dozen non-felons were similarly disenfranchised since 2017, after Pate replaced Schultz as the state's top elections official.
Critics say that the secretary of state’s office, which maintains the database, for too long acted merely as a pass-through for information from the courts to county elections officials. But that is changing.
A draft administrative rule proposed by Pate last month would require his office to obtain documentation of a felony conviction before an individual could be added to the list. Pate also said that additional steps would be taken to verify felons’ convictions before their voter registrations are cancelled.
Voting rights advocates applauded Pate’s steps, which came after the Brennan Center for Justice and the League of Women Voters of Iowa threatened legal action over the state's practice of misidentifying voters as felons.
“Obviously this is a big problem. It’s keeping people who have the right to vote from voting and creating a lot of confusion,” said Blair Bowie, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, which is helping ex-felons apply to the governor’s office to get their voting rights back. “It seems like there has been a lot of mismanagement of this over the years and there’s a lot to clean up.”
Bowie said her group has been examining the list for months and found “a myriad of mistakes,” including ex-offenders whose voting rights were restored by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2005. Others on the list erroneously believe they got their rights back or don’t know they are eligible to apply for restoration to the governor's office, she said.