IOWA CITY — Grant Ferguson was getting ready for work when a sheriff’s deputy arrived at his Iowa home with an arrest warrant.
The sales manager was stunned when he learned the reason: his unsuccessful attempt to vote in the 2016 election. The supporter of President Donald Trump would ultimately face $5,000 in legal costs to resolve the charges, which stemmed from a bureaucratic error that kept him on Iowa’s list of ineligible felon voters.
Those caught trying to cast ballots in violation of Iowa’s ban on felon voting face severe legal consequences, even when it’s unclear whether they knowingly broke the law, a review by the Associated Press shows. They can be arrested, jailed, ordered to pay large fines and even imprisoned.
The review comes as Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is pushing to eliminate Iowa’s lifetime voting ban on felons and restore voting rights once a sentence is served.
An Iowa House committee advanced her proposal Wednesday. Along with Kentucky and Virginia, Iowa is one of only three states with such a policy after Florida voters last fall agreed to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
A Clinton, Iowa, man who is disabled because of a brain injury was prosecuted after he mistakenly believed that poll workers would alert him if there was a problem with his voting eligibility.
A low-income Muscatine, Iowa, man who cast a provisional ballot after disputing that he was ineligible still owes $2,300 in court costs.
The mayor of tiny Moorhead, Iowa, was forced to resign and prosecuted for illegally voting after a judge revoked his deferred judgment in a drug case.
Prosecutors pursued cases even when ex-offenders such as Ferguson believed that they were legal voters but cast provisional ballots so that their eligibility could be determined later.
Others charged defendants with two prior felonies on their record as “habitual offenders,” meaning that they would face a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison if convicted.
Defendants and their supporters argue that the consequences are draconian.
“Getting in trouble for voting really threw me for a loop. I’m thinking, what?” said Eric Hook, who was uncertain about his eligibility after prior convictions for drunken driving and assault. “I just wanted to vote. It wasn’t a big deal to me. But evidently it is. It got me two more years of probation and a bunch more fines.”
Prosecutors say they are enforcing laws intended to safeguard elections.
“Iowans do value the integrity of our electoral process,” said Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf, who prosecuted Hook.
He said he shows restraint in deciding whom to charge because “the consequences are huge.”
Under a policy implemented by Democratic governors from 2005 to 2011, ex-felons were supposed to get their voting rights back when they were discharged from prison or probation. That order was rescinded by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who reinstated a process requiring them to apply to the governor before their rights could be restored.
Many are unsure whether they can vote, and not all precincts check the state’s felon list. That means that some ineligible felons are turned away but others vote and face criminal investigations later. Others are told that they’re on the list — which can be inaccurate — but are allowed to cast provisional ballots if they think that they shouldn’t be.
Court records show that 10 have been charged since 2017 with election misconduct, a felony that carries up to five years in prison, for voting or attempting to vote.
Nine reached plea agreements that gave them probation or prison time. The 10th case was dismissed after a judge rejected a guilty plea and ruled that the Muscatine man was innocent because he had been told that his rights were restored. Defendants faced an average of $1,578 in fines and court costs, which can include orders to reimburse the state for court-appointed attorneys.
“It’s just another way for the state to get some money,” said Anita Hunter of Davenport, Iowa, whose son was given three years of probation and fined $1,300.
Ferguson, 44, lost his voting rights in 2005 when he was convicted of third-offense drunken driving. A judge recommended that his rights be restored when he completed his sentence in 2009 and his probation officer told him that they would be. Unbeknownst to Ferguson, that never happened because the state didn’t have his address on file and couldn’t mail him the restoration certificate.
Ferguson told poll workers at a Waukee, Iowa, church that they were mistaken when they flagged him as a felon, explaining that his rights were restored years ago. He cast a provisional ballot for Trump.
Released from jail on bail, Ferguson tried to tell the county that his case was a misunderstanding. His legal troubles only got worse.
Then-Dallas County Attorney Wayne Reisetter charged him with four felonies: one each for claiming on his registration form, oath, ballot and absentee ballot application that he was eligible. Reisetter said it doesn’t matter that Ferguson’s rights should have been restored.
“The fact is, they weren’t,” he said.
Ferguson eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor and agreed to a fine to resolve the case without a trial. He thought that he would be acquitted but worried that he would spend thousands of dollars on legal fees and be imprisoned if he lost. The father of two is still paying $75 a month toward his fines.
“I got the short end of the stick because they didn’t want to admit they were wrong,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”