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Excited by a ‘first,’ wrongful voter says he forgot he’d lost the right

There’s been another vote challenge in the 2008 general election in Minnesota, but it isn’t likely to change anything — except maybe the voter’s address. He could be on his way back to prison.

There’s been another vote challenge in the 2008 general election in Minnesota, but it isn’t likely to change anything — except maybe the voter’s address. He could be on his way back to prison.

Eric Stephen Willems, 25, of Warroad, Minn., went to his polling place at Lake Town Hall in Roseau County on Election Day last November. He registered and cast his vote — his first, ever.

Trouble was, as a convicted felon he didn’t have a vote to cast.

“I was just excited that the presidential election was coming up and I would be able to vote,” Willems told the Grand Forks Herald Tuesday, a day after he appeared in a Roseau County district court and pleaded guilty to a charge of knowingly voting as an ineligible voter.

Restriction extends through probation
Willems was convicted in 2004 for criminal sexual contact in the third degree, having sex with a girl of 15 without using force. The felony conviction cost him four years in prison — and loss of some civil rights, including the right to vote. The restriction extends through his period of probation, which ends in 2011.

The ineligible voting charge also is a felony and carries a maximum charge of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In effect, Willems turned himself in. Before he went to vote, he called his probation officer, Tom Murphy, and left a message telling him where he was going and what he planned to do that day — a condition of his parole.

“This was a first for me,” Murphy told the Herald.

When he retrieved the message later on Election Day, Murphy reported the probation violation to a Roseau County deputy, who arrested Willems and seized his voter registration card and voter sign-in sheet.

Admitted he’d goofed
According to Roseau County authorities, Willems admitted messing up and didn’t dispute being told at the time of his release from prison that he had lost his right to vote.

“I must have gapped it out,” he said.

District Judge Donna Dixon ordered a pre-sentence investigation. Willems also faces a state Department of Corrections hearing on the probation violation.

He told the Herald that voting in the historic election was part of his effort to turn his life around.

“I understand that it was wrong,” he said, referring to the relationship that led to the 2004 conviction, when he was 20 and the girl 15.

A significant pool
He is part of a significant pool of potential voters. According to study results published in the National Law Journal (PDF), about 4 million convicted felons were barred from voting in 2000 by state voting laws. There have been proposals — including some in Minnesota — to modify the restrictions.

How big a problem is it? On the eve of the last election, Fox9’s Tom Lyden mined two basic databases, including one maintained by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, to report that 93 convicted felons had registered to vote in the state, even though they aren’t allowed to vote.

Some had registered from prison. Twenty-nine of the registrations had been flagged, but authorities weren’t aware of the rest.

The figure of 93 is misleading, though, according to John Aiken, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, who told Minnpost on Wednesday that many of those were felons who had applied for driver’s licenses and had been automatically signed up for voter registration by that other agency.

While he was not immediately able to cite statistics on felons actually voting or attempting to vote in Minnesota, “it’s my impression it would be extremely rare,” Aiken said. “It does happen from time to time in major elections.” In the 2004 and 2006 elections, he said, a total of three felons voted.

County auditors get updated lists
The state office provides county auditors with updated lists of convicted felons, which the counties then can check prospective voters against, he said.

“I would think it happens very rarely because the last thing you want to do when you get out of prison is to violate your parole,” Aiken said. “You’re sticking your neck way out there to say, ‘I dare you to find me’ ” in a voting booth.

Aware of the ongoing U.S. Senate contest, Willems volunteered that he voted for Norm Coleman (and John McCain for president), but he assumed that his ballot had been disqualified.

Not so, Roseau County Auditor Anne Granitz told MinnPost.

“His ballot was placed in the ballot box along with everybody else’s,” she said, so it would be impossible to identify it.