By Kelly Mena, CNN
In 2020, Joel Miller was one of three county auditors in Iowa who sent out pre-filled absentee ballot request forms to help people vote remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the end results: He was sued by then-President Donald Trump and his allies. Lawyers for Trump argued the pre-filled forms violated guidance given by the GOP secretary of state and could lead to voter fraud if the wrong person received a ballot application with another voter’s information.
Ultimately, Republicans’ challenge prevailed in court, forcing Miller, the Linn County auditor, to send new forms. But the experience left the Democrat worried about the future of voting in his home state.
And this year, he’s ready to do something about it.
Miller is one of two Democrats running to unseat incumbent Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate. The other candidate, Eric Van Lancker, currently serves as the Clinton County auditor. The two will face off in Tuesday’s primary.
Van Lancker, similarly to his Democratic opponent, says he wants to be an “advocate for voters.” The Democrat feels he is the best person to help voters navigate the law Republicans put in place in 2021 that included banning sending unsolicited absentee ballots and requiring absentee ballots be received before polls close on Election Day.
The victor of the Democratic primary will then face Pate, who has held the office since 2015 and served a previous stint in the 1990s, in November. Democrats in Iowa and nationally are already facing a tough year — the party in power usually faces headwinds — amid soaring gas prices, a baby formula shortage and gun violence.
Pate told CNN said that he believes Iowa ran a successful 2020 election that was one of the best in the country. He pointed to a the execution of a post-election audit in all 99 counties and a recount in a congressional race.
“I think those all speak well to how well we ran the elections in Iowa,” Pate said over the phone with CNN.
The state ranked third best in the nation for its performance by The Election Performance Index, compiled by the Massachusette Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab.
Buffer against restrictive voting laws
Miller is looking to act as a buffer and outspoken critic of the GOP’s push for more restrictive voting laws
In 2021, Republicans pushed through a law that banned election officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications — a direct outcome of what Miller and others did in 2020. The law also made it a felony to not follow the secretary of state’s guidance and election laws.
“We’re going to prosecute election misconduct …We’re not going to allow pre-populated ballots, which happened in Linn and Woodbury County (sic). That’s against the law, and if it happens again, those auditors will be prosecuted,” said Republican state Sen. Jim Carlin on the Senate floor ahead of passage of the bill last year.
Miller contends the laws are more of a power play by the GOP to suppress voters and stay in control.
“I’m mad as hell about what’s going on. This is about fighting something that’s just not right. I cannot stand to sit by and think that somebody else can fight a better fight against this than me,” Miller said.
Pate said that lawmakers were responding to voter concerns, adding that the GOP was “walking a fine line between “integrity and participation.”
“The key thing here is we want to have a plan to vote. They’re always deadlines. We want to make sure that we do our jobs to educate them as to what those deadlines are, so they can be successful. That’s what I do. That’s what I expect our county auditors to do,” Pate added.
More than a decade fighting for expanding voting access
At 67, Miller says he has lived a full life that has included serving in the military and raising a family that now includes nine grandchildren. He says he should probably be thinking about retirement and having fun with his family, but he refuses to finish his career amid “Republicans undermining of democracy.”
“I didn’t serve in the military to have to have people at home, Republicans in the legislature, undermine democracy,” Miller said.
He initially filed the paperwork for an exploratory committee for a secretary of state bid in December 2020, right after that year’s election and four months after the lawsuit filed against him.
“That kind of started the idea rolling in my head: Gosh, we need new leadership. We need someone advocating [for voters],” Miller told CNN in a phone interview.
He still believes he made the right decision in sending out pre-filled absentee ballot applications.
“I have no shame in what I did. I did the right thing for the right reasons at the right time,” he added.
His time as Linn County auditor began 14 years ago, but he has a long history in local government. Before becoming an auditor, Miller served as a city council member; the mayor of Robins, a suburb of Cedar Rapids; and the Linn County Democratic chair.
Miller said he became interested in being auditor after his predecessor, who took a job with the then-secretary of state in 2007, reached out to him to see if he was interested.
“One of the reasons you get into elections, I think, is that you want to see everyone vote,” Miller said.
Over the years, Miller has taken a slew of developmental courses, including in registration and election administration, in order to hone his skills in conducting elections.
One highlight of his tenure as auditor speaks to that: In November 2020, the office experienced its highest voter turnout, with more than 83% of voters casting a ballot, according to the secretary of state’s voter turnout report.
“As most election people will tell you … you get involved in elections and you kind of develop a love for it. You feel like you’re right at the foundation of our democracy in running the elections. And in fact, you are because everything in our democracy stems out of free and fair elections,” Miller said.
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