KEOKUK, Iowa -- A former drug offender on trial for illegally voting in an Iowa municipal election last fall testified Wednesday that she believed her right to cast a ballot had been restored when she completed probation.
Kelli Jo Griffin's case highlights Iowa's unusually harsh and confusing policies on voting rights for former offenders, which have changed three times over the last decade. Iowa is considered to be among the most difficult states for convicted felons to get back the right, and more than a dozen have faced charges of voting illegally during a two-year state investigation.
Griffin, who faces up to five years in prison if convicted, became the first of that group to challenge the charges at trial. Closing arguments and jury deliberations are expected Thursday at the county courthouse in Keokuk.
She testified Wednesday that when she was convicted of a cocaine delivery charge in 2008, her lawyer advised her that she would regain her rights to vote and hold public office when she completed her five-year term of probation. That was the policy in place at the time, under a 2005 executive order signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Griffin said she was unaware that Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded that policy in 2011, once again requiring former offenders to apply to him to get their voting rights back. Iowa is only one of four states with such a policy. She said she believed her rights were restored automatically when she was discharged from probation in January 2013.
By then, Griffin said, she had turned her life around. She said she was abused as a child and by her first husband and became addicted to drugs, which led to felony drug convictions in 2002 and 2008. She said she got remarried in 2011 and was living in the town of Montrose, population 878, with young three children and one stepdaughter. Griffin was a stay-at-home mom who was volunteering at school and served as vice president of a county child abuse prevention council.
She said she voted in the Nov. 5 municipal election in Montrose because her stepdaughter had been learning in school about elections. She went with her children to the polling place, where the workers told her she needed to present identification to register on election day. Griffin said she went home to get her ID and returned to fill out the voter registration form, attesting that she was not an ineligible felon, and cast her ballot. Just over 100 votes were cast in the election, which had no contested races on the ballot.
Asked by her attorney why she wanted to vote, she said, "That's where I live."
Griffin said she didn't think anything was wrong until she got a call from the Division of Criminal Investigation days later seeking to interview her. Poll workers had run Griffin's name through a database on election day and it did not flag her as a potential felon because her earlier conviction came under a different last name. But days after the election, a county election worker added her name to the state's voter registration database, which compared a match of her driver's license number and determined she was ineligible.
Lee County Attorney Michael Short raised his voice during cross-examination as he repeatedly told Griffin she was a "convicted drug dealer" who was trying to run from her past. He chastised her for not reading Vilsack's executive order and for not checking with anyone on whether the policy had since changed.
He rejected Griffin's claim that she gained nothing from voting.
"You want to make it appear that you are a normal citizen, that you are not a convicted drug dealer, that you have the same rights as everybody else," he told her.
Short said that Griffin ignored several warnings on the voter registration form that said giving false information could lead to a felony perjury charge.
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.
Branstad has defended the policy he reinstated in 2011, saying the application process ensures offenders are rehabilitating and paying their restitution and court costs before they are eligible to vote again.