Iowa Secretary of State Candidate Vows to Fight New Barriers to Voting

A county administrator wants to run Iowa’s elections to push against election deniers and to ease the way to mail voting.

Alex Burness   |    September 16, 2022

Joel Miller is currently auditor of Iowa’s second-largest county and is the Democratic nominee for Iowa secretary of state. (Photo courtesy Joel Miller)

Iowa used to have pretty accessible elections. But a pair of Republican-backed changes in 2017 and 2021 have made voting harder in key ways: less time to request mail ballots; a strict deadline that says mail ballots won’t be counted if received after polls close, even if they were mailed before Election Day; and an early-voting period half as long as it was just six years ago.

Joel Miller, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, has a unique vantage point on the challenges to election administration from his current role as auditor of Linn County, Iowa’s second-largest county by population. He opposed these changes in 2021, and was joined not only by his fellow Democratic county auditors, but also many Republican auditors who argued the GOP was needlessly making voting harder in Iowa.

Conspicuously absent from the crowd of Republican election officials decrying these changes was Paul Pate, the incumbent secretary of state and Miller’s opponent in November. He told The Cedar Rapids Gazette at the time that he would enforce election laws but not weigh in during their crafting. 

Miller told Bolts in an interview this week that the office demands a leader who will disavow voter restrictions.

Bolts also spoke with Miller about voting rights for incarcerated people, intimidation of election officials and whether telling the truth alone is enough to combat those who spread lies about democracy. Worried that election denialism is roiling Iowa, Miller says his office has seen an unusual spike in the number of challenges it receives to people’s voter registrations, much like local election offices in Georgia.

You say you want to “make voting easy again.” Was there a time when you felt it was easier to vote in Iowa than it is today?

When I talk about making voting easy again, I’m talking about the estimated 900,000 Iowans who have not yet voted since 2020, and they are going to find it’s not as easy to vote in 2022 as it was in November of 2020.

It used to be much easier in 2016 for people to vote by mail and also to vote in person. We had 40 days of early voting in 2016 and it moved to 29 days in 2017 and now we’re down to 20 days. I think we went from having the third-longest period of early voting in 2016 to now being somewhere in the middle of the pack. We also can’t mail ballots until the 20th day out from the election, where it used to be 29 days before 2021, and 40 days before 2017.

Another deadline that was moved up is the last day that we (county elections offices) can receive a request for an absentee ballot. That went from three days before the election in 2016 to 10 days, and then to 15 days after the 2021 law. In the June 22 primary in Iowa, in my county, 101 people missed that three day deadline, and 51 of them did not vote. The result of that is people cannot procrastinate anywhere in the process. The timelines are just too short, and that also puts a strain on the auditor’s office.

All these deadlines result in people getting disenfranchised. Another way to put it is that voting was made to be very inconvenient if you tend to vote early or you tend to vote by mail.

Which people, or what interests, stand to benefit from a system with these obstacles?

There’s a stereotype that exists among Iowans, and you can see it in the numbers as well, that Republicans tend to vote on election day. Since 2000, the Democratic Party has pushed the idea of voting by mail and voting early. That advantage, or disadvantage, was wiped out during the pandemic, when over two-thirds of voters, regardless of party, decided to vote early or vote by mail in the November 2020 general election, thus resulting in a record turnout. But with the return to normalcy, I expect that Republicans will once again choose to vote on election day. 

So you’re saying these rules can be used to make voting easier for people, to meet them where they’re at, or weaponized to preserve Republican power.

I believe that’s happening, to preserve Republican power. They don’t like that the demographics of Iowa are changing. They don’t like that people immigrating into the state are going to be more pro-Democratic than pro-Republican. So this is an attempt by them to hold onto power for 10 more years by stacking the deck. 

Keep in mind that 68 auditors (in the Iowa State Association of County Auditors) are Republicans: Our organization was unified in its opposition to the laws passed in 2021 to restrict voting. But the current secretary of state was not there to back us up.

After the November 2020 election, he said it was the best election we’d ever had, the most secure, the highest integrity. He was praising us for a job well done, and national figures were praising Iowa for the job we did. So it was a complete surprise, after coming off all the kudos we received in November 2020, that this election legislation was introduced in the spring of 2021. Not only introduced but debated and basically on the governor’s desk in a 7-10-day timeframe.

As secretary of state, I would have used the bully pulpit to talk every day about what was wrong with that bill, about how it was going to make voting more inconvenient and decrease voter turnout and end up disenfranchising people.

Have you seen any impact of Big Lie politics on the ground in Iowa? How has it affected your job as county auditor?

Let me tell you a factual impact: About ten days ago I received 119 voter registration challenges in Linn County. There’s a news report that a neighboring county received about 570 challenges. To put this in perspective, in my previous 15 years as auditor, I received three. 

County clerks and election administrators all around the country have reported increased threats and intimidation since the 2020 election. What would you do to support people who work in election administration?

Well, for example, the former Scott County auditor resigned because of threats. The 99 county auditors are forced to be the ones responsible for responding to this. We should have a unified message as to what’s going on here, and it starts with disavowing the people that have created this havoc. This isn’t supposed to be about someone keeping a job. It’s about doing what’s right for the public, what’s right for the voters, regardless of the consequences to us as individual elected officials. 

According to The Sentencing Project, there are some 34,000 people in Iowa who are disenfranchised either because they’re in prison, on probation or on parole. Do you believe they should have voting rights in Iowa?

I believe everyone should have voting rights, every eligible US citizen. That includes if you’re in prison. I’ve worked for 15 years trying to get everyone to vote, and it would include those people as well. I want everyone engaged in the voting process, because I think there’s a better chance the supporters of the loser will accept the result if we have a high voter turnout. So, why not have a high voter turnout so that it’s really a democratic result?

Isn’t that wishful thinking, given the demonstrated willingness of so many people in positions of power, up to and including the former president, to say that if they don’t win, an election was rigged?

It takes good people that are being silenced to stand up to the election deniers. Educated people who should know right and wrong are standing on the sidelines and not saying anything. So, is it wishful thinking? Well, a wish is just a goal without a timeline. We need to put a deadline on these things. That’s why I’m running. I cannot stand on the sideline and not say something about what’s happening to our elections in Iowa.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.