It’s not often you see Democrats and Republicans agreeing these days. In Iowa, however, “Iowa has free and fair elections” is one thing auditors of both parties can agree upon.
That includes Grant Veeder, the Democratic county auditor of one of Iowa’s last remaining Democratic strongholds of Black Hawk County, and Ryan Dokter, the Republican auditor in heavily Republican Sioux County in western Iowa.
Earlier this summer, neither had heard much local chatter about the latest election denier conspiracy going around, including the one pushed by Ohio mathematician Douglas Frank during an event in Iowa in late July. Veeder has gotten a couple of Freedom of Information Act requests, both from outside of Iowa, requesting data he does not have or is not legally allowed to make available.
But this week an unprecedented number of challenges to voter registration rolls in some Iowa counties show that Trump-inspired activists are getting busy in their efforts.
“I do have anxiety about it,” said Dokter, who was elected in 2016, said about the conspiracy theories. “We just don’t know to what level people are going to buy into this, and how much attention we dare to raise on it.”
He’s right to be worried: Those espousing election denier theories made threats to 17% of the country’s election officials in 2020. About 110 of the 850 messages to such officials Reuters collected that year are so-called true threats, generally defined as those intended to put a person in fear of death or bodily harm or to inflict severe emotional distress.
Many can be traced to the Stop the Steal movement, which began with Trump alleging voter fraud even before votes were counted in 2020.
If deniers run for election offices here, as has happened in other states, it’s an even worse prospect, said Veeder.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I know that people have hypothesized that these (election deniers), if they get into power or positions of authority, they can overturn elections based on spurious information. And that concerns me a lot.”
Elected to debunk?
When it comes to elections, auditors’ normal duties mostly include making sure their staff and voters are up-to-date on the new laws and regulations of voters so they don’t miss important deadlines, such as when they need to request an absentee ballot or what they need to bring to a polling station.
So even though Iowa’s 99 county auditors have a party attached to their name, it’s probably the least partisan office one can hold. Their job is literally making sure every vote is counted, regardless of party affiliation.
“There are so many people across the state that care deeply about running clean and fair elections, and Sioux County’s no different,” Dokter said.
Auditors do that even as their jobs and that of their staff have been made more difficult through legislation. The Iowa Legislature shortened the time to submit an absentee ballot request, added Voter ID requirements, and more.
Now, auditors can add “debunking” to their job duties.
“When people get excited to vote, it seems like there’s a statewide race or a federal race, and those times we’re also making sure they know what laws have changed—and also, in a year like this where redistricting happens, some people are going to be voting in a different location,” Dokter said. “So it’s a challenge to get that message out already, let alone fight off some of these things.”
So let’s get right into it.
Argument #1: Phantom voters
Among the theories put forth by Douglas Frank, a high school teacher touring the country with his theories on how he thinks the election was stolen from Trump, is that voter registrations increase unnaturally right before an election, and voters are then taken off the rolls right afterward.
This was something he claimed in his Independence, Iowa, talk on July 27. Frank said there was proof of nefarious actors “filling in an algorithm” with phantom ballots.
But most of the increase right before an election is very normal, auditors say. New people come to town, kids turn 18, or even somebody that hadn’t bothered voting before gets the notion to finally do so.
“There’s just an aspect of people who have never been registered getting registered because they’re interested,” Dokter said. “So to say these rolls are getting inflated leading up to an election—we are seeing more people get registered to vote leading up to an election. That’s historically been true.”
Every voter added to the rolls, too, is checked—they have to live where they say they live and receive mail verifying that. That’s why Veeder says Frank’s argument doesn’t hold water.
“If you’re doing that for enough people to change an election, you’re talking about thousands and thousands of people that you are setting up at these addresses for a week to be able to receive the acknowledgment that they’ve registered to vote,” he said. “Then they’re going to send in an absentee ballot request, and they’ve got to be there long enough to receive it and send it back. And then they’re going to disappear?”
Removing voters from the rolls also isn’t very easy to fake.
In Iowa, voters are removed through list maintenance procedures required by Iowa law, national change of address, and multi-state matching to ensure voters aren’t also registered in another state. On a smaller scale, Dokter said, that includes reading the obituaries to remove deceased voters.
In either case—adding or subtracting voters—information is thoroughly checked person by person.
“So when we’re seeing a reduction in the voter rolls, it’s because of those required processes,” Dokter said. “There’s no county auditor out there just willy-nilly canceling or inactivating voters.”
Argument #2: Ballot stuffing
If there’s one argument Veeder has heard before, it’s the theory that random ballots are being counted.
“Four years ago, they were talking about, ‘Oh, all these ballots were marked in China and just sent to the United States,’ because you could find bamboo in the boxes or something like that,” he said.
The first thing to know: County auditors aren’t just counting whatever ends up in ballot boxes, no matter who put them there or how they got there. Each ballot is tied to a specific voter who has been vetted in the process above, and that voter can only vote once.
“If we got 100 ballots of people that we didn’t have registered, we’re not going to count those ballots,” Veeder said. “If we got 10 ballots from the same person, we’re not going to count all 10 ballots.”
But there are other safeguards, too: Each ballot is also specific to that particular precinct. Some state and local candidates will only be on some ballots in some jurisdictions. Each jurisdiction’s ballots also have specific timing marks so tabulating machines accept them.
“First of all, how many jurisdictions are we talking about? Who’s going to be on the ballot? How are they going to mark up the ballots to be used, precisely correct in showing all the different races, all the different candidates? It’s just mind-boggling,” Veeder said. “They have to do all of that right.”
Argument #3: Hackable machines
“Ever since the advent of electronic voting machines, there have been people who say they can’t be trusted,” Veeder said. Hackers, he freely admits, “can get into anything that they have access to.”
The trick, then, is to not give them access.
“We don’t want the ability to manipulate the machine, and we can’t,” Dokter said.
Veeder is on the board of people who oversee each new electronic voting machine and each new update to an existing one and is very familiar with its inner workings. It’s not connected to the internet at all, because it can’t be under Iowa law.
“You cannot have your voting machines connected to the internet in any way, and that includes the tabulating that you do in the office after you get the results from the machines in every precinct,” he said.
Instead, poll workers take the results from the machine, put them onto a flash drive, and hand-deliver them to the county auditor. That’s then downloaded onto a machine that is also not connected to the internet. Only when the results are tabulated do auditors (or the Secretary of State’s office) then post those online.
Maybe Trump-hating minions are switching out flash drives en masse, you say? That’d be immediately found out in the post-election canvass, where the actual paper ballots are matched with voter results from those flash drives, said Veeder.
“They were able to make new results not only replacing those we got on election night, but replacing those that we’re going to open up a week later, and they have to match exactly?” he said. “Just tell me how you do these things.”
Paranoia and democracy
Picking on low-level election officials is easy for Frank and other election deniers, even though those like Dokter take their jobs seriously, including legitimate concerns about voter fraud.
“That’s one of the things that bothered me quite a bit with Dr. Frank, was his disgust for the Secretary of State and how little credit he would ever give to county auditors, or ‘clerks,’ as he kept calling them,” Dokter said. “Basically, making me feel like I’m inept, like I just don’t do my job, I don’t care about elections. Those kinds of things bother me, ’cause that is the furthest thing from the truth.”
But what really irks auditors is the worry that their own voters, who don’t know as much about elections as they do, might start believing Frank. That, in turn, could lead to them not trusting their own elections are fair.
“If people were to read all the election laws and internalize those, they would understand to what extent we’re trying to protect their vote and make it count,” Dokter said. “Generally, they’re pretty happy with how elections take place in Iowa.”
Dokter is right: Approximately 86% of respondents in a recent Data for Progress poll have “some” or “a lot” of trust in Iowa’s elections. And despite Frank targeting the MAGA crowd, Iowa Republicans actually have the most trust in elections, with 92% choosing those options. (82% of Democrats and independents/third party members did, too.)
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, has repeatedly said the 2020 election in Iowa was secure and without widespread fraud.
“There is zero evidence of any unauthorized intrusions into Iowa’s election systems,” his office told Starting Line. “Elections are conducted independently with ample safeguards in place in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Our elections are bipartisan, transparent, paper-based, and routinely audited.”
In her concession speech, Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney echoed the perils of electing those who deny elections are fair.
“No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility, where their refusal to follow the rule of law will corrupt our future,” Cheney said.
Maybe the silver lining in all of this is Frank’s argument rests on the notion that votes were stolen from Trump. But in Iowa, voters actually increased their vote share for Trump between 2016 and 2020, seemingly negating election deniers altogether.
“What would be the likelihood of somebody targeting Iowa? I think that’s low,” Veeder said. “There’s not much for Republicans to complain about in Iowa.”
But it’s still shaky ground county auditors find themselves on when a larger percentage of people are willing to entertain the idea that elections are just another deep-state, fake-news cog in a broken machine.
“We have checks and balances. We have your next-door neighbor working the polling locations. We vote on paper. We do post-election audits,” Dokter said. “We have a good history of conducting clean and fair elections, not only in this county but across the state. So hopefully, people are trusting that and can ask us questions.”
By Amie Rivers
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Follow us on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.