Linn County auditor exploring 2022 bid for Iowa secretary of state

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller may run for secretary of state next year, the Democrat announced on his blog January 30. Miller created an exploratory committee in November with the goal of recruiting “a current or former county auditor to run for Secretary of State in 2022 or to run for Secretary of State myself.”

If Miller runs for statewide office, he’ll transfer money raised by the exploratory committee to his campaign account. He plans to transfer any unspent funds to the Iowa Democratic Party if he decides not to challenge Republican incumbent Paul Pate.

It would be hard to overstate the level of animosity between Pate, who has been the state’s chief elections officer since 2015, and the auditor in his home county. Last summer, Pate went to the Iowa legislature to block Miller and other county auditors from mailing absentee ballot request forms with voters’ information filled in. Miller went ahead with his mailing, after which Pate’s legal counsel sent a wide-ranging demand for related documents that hinted at litigation.

A Republican lawsuit later succeeded in invalidating Linn County’s pre-filled absentee ballot request forms, but Pate wasn’t satisfied. He asked Attorney General Tom Miller to investigate and prosecute the Linn County auditor for consumer fraud related to allegedly divulging voters’ personal information. (The attorney general declined.)

Pate also targeted absentee ballot “drop boxes” after Joel Miller set up three of the boxes outside Hy-Vee grocery stores in the Cedar Rapids area. The secretary of state backpedaled to allow the use of such boxes, which make it easier for voters to hand-deliver completed absentee ballots, outside government buildings only.

I reached out to three other Democratic county auditors whose names are sometimes floated as possible candidates for secretary of state. Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told Bleeding Heartland he’s not considering a statewide campaign in 2022. Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald has not yet responded to the inquiry. Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker said he had no comment at this time.

Deidre DeJear, the 2018 Democratic nominee for secretary of state, told Bleeding Heartland in a January 31 telephone interview that she’s not thinking about the 2022 elections now. She is exploring “how to increase leadership in our state” at all levels. DeJear is particularly focused on this year’s city council and school board races, as well as ensuring that people “who want to add value” can obtain leadership roles including positions on boards and commissions as well as elective offices. “I feel very, very strongly about ensuring that we have visionary leadership at every level of decision-making, and that’s where I’m putting my efforts right now,” especially ahead of the November 2021 local elections.

DeJear has continued her voting rights activism since losing to Pate by a 52.7 percent to 44.9 percent margin. Last September she created the 20/20 Vision PAC, which supports progressive candidates while also seeking to empower “communities to take ownership in their local government,” through “intergenerational problem solving” and giving individuals “the necessary tools to facilitate change.”

Jim Mowrer, a former Congressional candidate who sought the 2018 Democratic nomination for secretary of state, told Bleeding Heartland via email, “While circumstances can change, I currently have no plans to be a candidate for office in 2022.” Mowrer teaches at Grand View University in Des Moines and has a political consulting firm. Last year he joined the board of directors of Taking the Hill PAC, a political action committee that supports veterans and military family members as candidates for various offices.

Final note: Though no Republican rival to Pate has emerged, some political observers believe the incumbent may face a GOP primary challenge in 2022. Many Republicans were incensed when the Secretary of State’s office neglected to publish a proposed pro-gun constitutional amendment in 2018, setting back the process for changing the Iowa Constitution. If not for the staff error, the measure could have been on a statewide ballot for ratification in 2020. Instead, it will come before voters in 2022. To prevent future mishaps, the legislature enacted a law in 2019 that eliminates the secretary of state’s role in publishing constitutional amendments.

Some GOP lawmakers were unhappy that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pate used emergency powers to extend the state’s early voting period before the 2020 primary and mail every registered voter an absentee ballot request form. The legislature responded in June by curtailing the secretary of state’s emergency powers.

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