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Convicted felon's illegal ballot was counted in Roseau County

Despite his fears that his outlaw votes came to naught, the ballot Eric Willems cast illegally Nov. 4 in Roseau County, Minn., was counted, along with the other 7,755 ballots cast, the county auditor said today.

Willems, a convicted felon from a 2004 sex offense, committed another felony by voting last fall before his sentence had expired or been completed.

He pleaded guilty this week in state district court in Roseau to the charge of voting illegally as an ineligible voter.

He said he wasn't aware he couldn't vote, and had notified his parole officer that he was going to vote, as he has to do with any place he travels, because of his 2004 conviction.

Although a sheriff's deputy came down Election Day and got Willems' registration application he signed as well as the roster signature, his votes couldn't be retrieved, said Auditor Anne Granitz.

"There's no way of retrieving a certain person's ballot," she said today. "Because, when a voter at the polls votes, they place their ballot into a ballot counter in the ballot box and it gets counted along with every other voter's ballot."

Willems told the Herald he voted for Sen. John McCain for president and incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman in the still-contested Minnesota Senate race.

So, it's possible his illegal vote could have an effect in the now-in-court controversy over which votes to count between Coleman and challenger Al Franken.

This doesn't happen often.

Granitz remembers an election violation or two in her 23 years as auditor, but a felon voting doesn't come to mind, Granitz said. "I would have to look, I'm not sure."

It hardly ever happens, said John Aiken, spokesman for the Minnesota Secretary of State's office.

There was a single case in 2004 that may have involved a felon attempting to vote in the Twin Cities, who got caught and prosecuted, Aiken said. He can't remember the details.

And, in 2006, there were two cases of felons attempting to, or actually voting, illegally, he said.

"So, it's extremely rare," Aiken said.

Willems case was unusual, too, because he first notified his parole officer before going to vote; the terms of his supervised release require him to notify the officer before he goes anywhere. The officer, Tom Murphy, returned Willems' call later Election Day to tell him he had just committed a crime by voting.

There should have been some information in the Roseau County Auditor's office tagging Willems as ineligible to vote.

Typically, the courts send information to the secretary of state on people convicted of felonies and those names are passed on to counties, so their names can be flagged in case they try to vote, Aiken said.

In Willems' case, because he was a new voter who registered for the first time Election Day at the polling place in rural Lake Township near Warroad, it appears maybe there was no information available at the polling site that would have alerted officials he was an ineligible voter, Aiken figures.

Willems, 25, said he had never voted before, partly because he spent four years in prison after being convicted at 20, and was excited to get the chance to vote.

Although he was told when he got out of prison about what civil rights he wouldn't have for some years as a felon, including the right to vote, he says he wasn't aware of that.

Like every other voter, Willems signed the voter registration application and roster list that each includes the voter promising he is not a felon without an expired sentence, Granitz said.

"In both places, voters are signing an oath," she said.

He has a chance to vote again someday.

Once a Minnesota felon's sentence expires, or is totally complete, including any supervised release time, his civil rights are restored, including the right to vote.

Willems' 2004 sentence would have expired in 2011.

Now, the Department of Corrections will decide whether his original sentence will be restructured because of his violation of probation by voting.

He also soon will be sentenced on the new felony of voting illegally.

"It's a weird deal," Willems said.