Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate never really paid a political price for the 5,842 uncounted votes in Dallas County in the 2016 general election. Jim Mowrer plans to change that.
The veteran and past congressional candidate kicked off his bid for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state the other week, focusing his early messaging on criticism of the Dallas County mess.
“The Secretary of State, the man in charge of our elections, didn’t count nearly 6,000 votes,” Mowrer told Starting Line recently. “And I have seen first-hand the cost of our freedom and our democracy, and it is outrageous. It’s a slap in the face of our democracy and everyone who has fought for it to not count the votes.”
He’s referring to the situation early this year when the secretary of state’s office discovered in February that 5,842 absentee ballots didn’t end up getting recorded by the Dallas County Auditor. About 13% of the total vote in Iowa’s fastest-growing county got left out when election officials were uploading batches of votes. The error went unnoticed by county and state officials for three months, long past when the election was certified. Luckily, no election result would have been changed by the addition of the uncounted votes, but it still remains as one of the worst election screw-ups in Iowa history.
Pate’s office pushed off responsibility for the mess onto the Dallas County officials, and several staffers there were demoted and reprimanded. But what remained unclear is how the secretary of state’s office didn’t realize that 13% of the vote in one of Iowa’s largest counties was missing.
“As secretary of state your number one priority is to make sure every Iowans’ vote is counted. He failed at that,” Mowrer said. “He’s tried to shift blame to everyone but himself, and he’s pursued policies ever since to make it more expensive and difficult for people to vote. It’s very clearly partisan.”
That might be Pate’s biggest weakness heading into his reelection effort next year, even as many Democrats are most upset about new voting restrictions. This past legislative session, Pate spearheaded efforts to include new voter I.D. requirements for voting, and Republicans passed legislation that restricted the number of days and methods for early voting. Mowrer sees that as a partisan move, and worries that Pate’s office hasn’t properly informed voters about the changes.
“Voters absolutely don’t know about these changes,” Mowrer predicted. “Indiana implemented similar legislation a few years ago and they spend nearly $4 million educating voters on the changes. That’s not happening here … That’s going to create lines, there’s going to be a lot more provisional ballots that are cast. It’s going to potentially throw our upcoming elections into chaos … All of this is a thinly-veiled attempt to make it harder for some people to vote and it’s motivated by partisan politics.”
As Mowrer considered running for this office in 2018 he talked with a lot of county auditors around the state. For a while earlier this year it looked like one of those officials would seek out the Democrats’ nomination for secretary of state. With Mowrer in the race, most of them, including Travis Weipert of Johnson County, Eric Van Lancker of Clinton County and Roxanna Moritz of Scott County, have endorsed and joined Mowrer’s steering committee.
“In speaking to county auditors, people who are conducting elections on the ground, both Democrats and Republicans who have worked with multiple secretary of states have said this secretary is the worst secretary they’ve ever worked with,” Mowrer said. “They’re not consulted. They’re making it harder for them to do their job.”
Mowrer hopes to improve that relationship if he’s elected. However, without a full Democratic takeover of the Statehouse in next year’s elections, a full reversal of the new voting law changes will take place. But Mowrer thinks enough problems will surface in its implementation next year that changes will take place regardless of which party holds power.
“I think there may be a good chance of bipartisan consensus of making changes to this legislation after the election,” Mowrer said.
This will be Mowrer’s third major race in three cycles. He noted he’s always been very interested in voting policy and management, going back to his days in Iraq.
“My biggest first-hand experience was when I was serving with the Iowa National Guard in Iraq in 2006,” he recalled. “In the midst of all the crazy things happening on the ground, we realized the 2006 elections were coming up. I wanted to make sure that my vote was counted, so I talked to some of my fellow soldiers about it.”
The unit’s voting assistance officer was stationed halfway across the country, so Mowrer took it upon himself to print off absentee ballot requests, email county auditors and organize a voting drive among his fellow soldiers. He noted that some ballots never showed up, but that they were camped in the middle of the desert. Several auditors helped by emailing scanned ballots in addition to mailing them.
That kind of extra effort to make sure Iowans’ votes get counted is the kind of mentality Mowrer hopes to install in the secretary of state’s office. To get there he’ll first face a Democratic primary with Des Moines businesswoman Deidre DeJear.
by Pat Rynard