KEOKUK — A former drug offender who believed her voting rights had been restored when she cast a ballot last year was acquitted of perjury Thursday, a public rebuke of Iowa's two-year investigation into voter fraud.
The 12-member jury took less than 40 minutes to reject the prosecution's argument that Kelli Jo Griffin intentionally lied on a voter registration form she filled out for a municipal election in the southeastern Iowa town of Montrose.
It was the first trial stemming from the state's voter fraud investigation championed by Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican. And it highlighted Iowa's status as one of just four states in which ex-offenders have to apply to the governor to regain their voting rights, under a 2011 order that has created confusion.
Griffin, a 40-year-old mother of three young children and one stepdaughter, would have faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted since she was charged as a habitual offender.
"I'm glad that I can go back to being a mother," she told reporters afterward.
Griffin had lost her voting rights following a 2008 felony conviction for delivery of less than 100 grams 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her right to vote had been restored when she left probation last year, which had been the state's policy until it was rescinded three years ago by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
Lee County Attorney Michael Short had argued that Griffin deliberately left blank a question on the form that asked whether she was a convicted felon, and if so, whether her rights were restored.
"That's a knowing lie!" he shouted during closing arguments, forcefully lunging his head toward Griffin. He said she was trying to hide her past as a drug dealer and promote an image of a "stay-at-home mom who is just doing her thing."
Her attorney, Curt Dial, told jurors that theory was ridiculous. He said Griffin had nothing to gain by participating in an election in which 110 people voted in uncontested mayoral and council races, other than to show a stepdaughter who was learning about elections how voting worked.
Griffin testified that she has turned her life around after numerous struggles, including being molested as a child, having mental illness, being domestically abused, and addicted to drugs. Now she said she's happily married and volunteers for causes such as battered women's shelters, child abuse prevention and education.
She would not risk her stable life in Montrose, where she moved in 2011 after remarrying, to knowingly vote illegally, Dial said.
"The jury didn't have much question at all," he told reporters. "It's the outcome I expected. We're happy with it."
Short, a Democrat, defended his decision to pursue the case, which he called the first election-related crime he's prosecuted in 40 years. He said both sides agreed on all of the elements of the crime except whether her false statement was made knowingly.
Griffin testified that she was unaware that Branstad rescinded a 2005 executive order signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in which offenders automatically received their voting rights back once they left state supervision.
Branstad's 2011 change requires offenders to individually apply to the governor to regain voting rights. Griffin's probation officer testified that she never told her about the change.
Griffin is among 26 people who have been charged with election-related crimes under a two-year investigation coordinated by Schultz, who ran for the office vowing 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 my opinion, it's a waste of time," Dial said. "I have no idea the facts of the other cases. Based upon the changes in the executive orders, it's difficult for anyone to know whether they can vote or not, if they were in Kelli's situation."