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By Archie Ingersoll and Stephen J. Lee, Published February 24 2009

Felon voter in Roseau County to spend 30 days behind bars

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The felon who notified his probation officer before voting in the presidential election in November in Roseau County was sentenced Monday to spend 30 days in jail for illegally casting a ballot.

Eric Stephen Willems, 25, of Warroad, Minn., is a convicted sex offender who spent four years in prison for a 2004 conviction for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. He told the Herald earlier he must have forgotten the admonition he received on being released from prison that he couldn’t vote as a convicted felon while on several years of probation.

He said he was excited to vote for the first time and must have "gapped out," that he is prohibited from voting, Willems told the Herald.

Willems is required to inform his probation officer, Tom Murphy, of the state’s Department of Corrections, whenever he goes anywhere outside his home. He left a message on the probation officer’s telephone on Election Day, Nov. 4, telling him he was going to vote. The probation officer returned the call later that day and told Willems he had just committed a felony, and then informed the local prosecutor.

Willems initially was charged with a felony for being an ineligible voter who knowingly cast a ballot.

But as part of a deal, he pleaded guilty to lesser charge, a gross misdemeanor version of illegal voting. He was sentenced in Roseau County court Monday to a year in jail with all but 30 days stayed for three years. Willems will begin serving his sentence March 2. He also was ordered to serve three years of supervised probation after he’s released.

Willems told the Herald he voted for Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, for president, and Sen. Norm Coleman, R.-Minn., for the Senate seat still being contested before a three-judge panel in the Twin Cities.

Attorneys for Coleman’s challenger, DFL candidate Al Franken, have mentioned Willems’ case as an example of why some ballots should be thrown out.

Election officials in Roseau County told the Herald that his name wasn’t recognized as that of a convicted felon when he cast his vote in a small rural precinct. And there was no way to go back and find his ballot after he cast it.

Only a two or three convicted felons have voted, or attempted to vote, illegally in recent years in Minnesota, according to an official in the secretary of state’s office.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.