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AP Exclusive: Iowa felons list bars a police department from voting; omits a drug dealer

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When a trusted source obtained a state of Iowa database of 103,000 convicted felons barred from voting, Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley analyzed the information and found it was riddled with errors, including laughable mistakes – such as the Des Moines Police Department being banned from voting.

Foley has written extensively about problems tracking ineligible felons in Iowa, one of the last states where they face a lifetime voting ban. But it had been five years since he’d gotten a copy of the database itself. Foley decided to first look for outliers – names that seemed wrong, birth dates that were off, entries that were missing and other irregularities. In addition to the police department, he soon found other jaw-dropping mistakes on the list, including the “State of Iowa,” the Lederman Bail Bonds Company, the Kindercare Day Care Center and the estate of a long-dead man whose name was misspelled.

Foley has written extensively about problems tracking ineligible felons in Iowa, but he hadn’t seen the state’s list in five years.

Foley was able to look up the court cases listed on those entries to track down the actual felons who should have been added to the banned list in each case. Next, Foley went through a sample of more than 700 entries on the list and found that about 4% shouldn’t have been there at all – they were misdemeanor convictions that should not have triggered the loss of voting rights. He contacted court officials, who acknowledged mistakes and are taking steps to correct them.

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Des Moines Police Sgt. Paul Parizek speaks during a news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 2, 2016. Parizek was on his way to vote in November when the AP pointed out that the police department appears on Iowa’s list of felons who are barred from voting. “You would think there would be an audit with something as important as voting,” was among Parizek’s comments. The state has said that it would make a major effort to fix the felon list before the 2020 election. – AP Photo / Scott McFetridge

Lastly, through a stroke of luck, Foley reached the spokesman for the Des Moines Police Department to notify him of the error just as the spokesman was on his way to vote in Tuesday’s mayoral election. “Holy Cow!” and “Oh my God” were two of his printable reactions. Foley knew he had the lead anecdote for the story.

Central region editor Jeff McMurray also deserves credit for helping Foley craft the top of the story,contrasting a drug dealer not listed and the police department that was. The story was used extensively by Iowa newspapers and broadcasters,who were especially interested given that the state’s governor is seeking to change the law regarding voting by felons who have completed their sentences.

For dedicated research and reporting that produced an engaging story of statewide interest, Foley earns AP’s Best of the States award.

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