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Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate discusses the upcoming primary elections and other voting-related issues. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are James Lynch, political reporter for The Gazette, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 22, 2022 | 27 min

Transcript

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Recent court cases have aimed a new spotlight on Iowa's upcoming primary elections. We sit down with Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 22nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Our guest today is Iowa's Secretary of State who is also known as the Commissioner of Statewide Elections. Paul Pate served as Secretary of State one term in the 1990s, then he returned to office in this century and is seeking on this year's general election ballot to serve a third consecutive term. Welcome back to Iowa Press, Paul Pate.

Pate: It's a pleasure.

Henderson: Joining the conversation are Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register and James Q. Lynch of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Pfannenstiel: Secretary, you served on the state objection panel that considered whether Abby Finkenauer, a democratic Senate candidate, should be allowed onto the primary election ballot. And that panel decided that she should not. The State Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Do you disagree with the Supreme Court ruling that said she could appear on the state primary ballot?

Pate: Well, I did have a different opinion on it. I felt that 200 candidates plus got it right and were able to get the dates and the signatures done correctly and from where I was sitting as a Commissioner I felt the code did say not maybe, it said shall. But I do respect the fact that the Supreme Court took a different interpretation. And my homework now is to work with the legislature to make sure we spell it out so it's much clearer in the future.

Pfannenstiel: Do you think it's appropriate that a panel of partisan elected officials should be the ones making that initial decision?

Pate: Well, I think we have to take responsibilities. We take an oath of office and we don't take an oath as a republican or a democrat and I think as long as we can keep that in mind I don't see a problem with it.

Lynch: You mentioned the legislature that they need to fix this. So what is your recommendation to the legislature? How should it be fixed? Do they need the dates? Do they skip the dates? What?

Pate: Well, consistency is the first thing. If we're going to put the date on the petitions then it should be required. I think there is a good case to be made that the dates are important when you're trying to interpret when they were signed, to verify if those people were actually legitimate voters at the time or eligible. So I think there is a reason for that. So I suspect they'll go back in and we'll look at the language to be parallel to some of the other things that we specified will be required and spell it out.

Henderson: For the benefit of viewers who may be just tuning into this Abby Finkenauer kerfuffle, there is a line on petition signatures, the nominating petition signatures, that has the person's name and then an address and then at the end there is a spot where you're supposed to put the date on which it was signed, correct?

Pate: Correct, correct.

Lynch: I don't know how important that date is but you're looking for consistency is what you're saying. Quite often with voting when people look at ballots they say what was the intent of the voter? Did they mean to fill in that circle? Is that a checkmark? Should we count that? The intent here seems pretty clear, they signed the petition. Whether the date was there or not, is that significant?

Pate: Well, I think it is because back to what I said a moment ago, if the other 200 plus candidates did it right, someone running for a significant office like United States Senator should be able to do the same. The bigger question it comes back to is why as a candidate did you not have a buffer, meaning have some extra signatures? In my case, we had over 7,200 signatures and well over the minimum number of counties and meeting the requirements there because I wanted to make sure I didn't have this kind of issue that Abby ran into and the other statewides were able to do the same.

Henderson: And so just for the benefit of viewers, a statewide candidate such as a candidate running for the U.S. Senate had to have 100 signatures in each of 19 different counties, correct?

Pate: You had to have 100 signatures is correct. And when you're turning in exactly 100 signatures you're leaving yourself vulnerable to interpretations like this or others.

Lynch: One of the questions that came up is who should have standing to challenge? Should republicans be able to challenge a democratic candidate's petitions and vice versa? Or should it have to be somebody from that party raising the challenge?

Pate: Well, for me it made sense that if you are a registered Iowa voter you should be able to challenge because these individuals who are running, yes it may be the primary, but they will be the candidate come this fall and you can't challenge then. So if there is a question about their legitimacy of their candidacy the appropriate time would be at this juncture. So I feel those people were in good standing and I wouldn't want to see that changed.

Lynch: But you would limit it to Iowa voters?

Pate: Correct.

Henderson: There was recently a court ruling regarding the Libertarian Party and how candidates from the Libertarian Party may appear on the Iowa ballot. How is your office going to handle that going forward?

Pate: Well, we're going to have to do our homework and figure out how we can re-align the dates to make it work. My staff is looking at that right now. And I will say our hope is that we can get back to some consistency on all these dates. I think it gets a little confusing, it is much easier if the filing deadlines are the same for everybody going through the process. So I hope that the legislature will look at that next year as well.

Lynch: Are those candidates out of luck for this election cycle?

Pate: No, no, they'll have a window now to be able to still -- we'll put those dates out there, frankly as close as they were before, if we can do that. We have to deal with deadlines like getting the ballots printed out so we can't be leaving a window open where people still can be on a ballot past the deadlines.

Henderson: And we're talking about general election ballots, we're not talking about primaries because the Libertarian Party is not have a "primary".

Pate: Correct, that's right, for the fall elections.

Pfannenstiel: Well, you're also a candidate on the ballot this year. You're seeking a fourth term overall, third consecutive. So what do you still hope to accomplish in this role?

Pate: Well, it's constantly evolving. When I came into this position we were talking cybersecurity, trying to deal with bad actors from Russia and other places and I think we've done a good job of putting those kinds of protections in place. But now we're into a whole new era of misinformation and disinformation and trying to make sure that the public's full confidence in the integrity that their vote did get counted. And so that is really the focus I'm putting more time into and it means public education 24/7 all the time.

Lynch: You sort of touched on this and I want to follow up. Secretary of State once was sort of a quiet obscure office. Reporters came to you before the election and said, how many people are going to vote? And you gave us your best guess. But you're on the firing line now. You talked about the misinformation, the attacks on the process itself. As past President of the National Association of Secretaries of State, the people who run these elections, what are they thinking? And who wants to do this job?

Pate: Well, I said it has evolved, it has changed dramatically. Elections used to be more at the 20,000 foot level, people didn't want to get into the weeds. Now they're in the weeds, they want to know, they want to know exactly how that tabulator works, they want to know how you're processing certain things or how couriers work or anything of the details. So it has evolved. One of the things I did as President of the National Association of Secretaries of State was start a program called Trusted Info where we were putting a full court press to try to gain the public's support and going to us as their trusted source on elections whether it's their county auditor or the secretary of state. We're still doing that but we're building out the choir. We spent a lot of time making sure more people are up to date on what is going on, being more proactive on giving them the information, letting them know we vote with paper ballots, we have voter ID, that we have post-election audits and one of the most important things is we have poll workers, your friends and neighbors that are frontline of elections, the unsung heroes I call them, all these put together is why Iowans can trust our elections. And it must be working because we have one of the highest voter turnouts in the country. We just recently were named third best in the country from an MIT study. When I first came into office we were in 12th place. We're doing things right I believe and we're going to keep building off of that.

Henderson: But what do you say to Iowans who don't believe the outcome of the 2020 election?

Pate: Well, I'm not going to be able to convince everybody probably, but I would do my very best to give them all the facts. That's the important part. And we'll continue to do that. And then we have to build on transparency. You cannot assume people understand what is going on. You need to make sure you show them everything you're doing on a regular basis. And I think that will pay dividends in the end.

Pfannenstiel: Given that concern and that mistrust that has now been building up for several years, what are you most concerned about going into administering the 2024 elections?

Pate: I think this election right now is so important and what we do here is going to set the table for 2024, particularly for Iowa. I think we have a much better situation here, we have much better voter confidence than some states do right now. So we've got to make sure we're building and educating the public going into 2022. As 2024 rolls around, we're going to be faced in Iowa with some of the fallout on the national scene. So yes, my role will be different. I'll be working probably closer with my peers in the other states so we build a national messaging even stronger about the integrity of our voting so people have that confidence.

Henderson: So what is the number one falsehood that you have to knock down nationally?

Pate: It differs from state to state, but it really comes down to there are those who still just don't believe that however they're doing their voting, the physical process, that it is foolproof, that there's vulnerabilities. And some of that is because they had a strong passion for a candidate and their candidate doesn't win --

Henderson: You mean Donald Trump.

Pate: Donald Trump in this case. But we had the same issue before in other presidential campaigns on the other side. The one we're faced with right now is the Trump campaign cycle. And they believe their candidate had it all right and should have been the winner and they're looking for answers. And sometimes the process is the easiest target to take on. My role is to make sure they understand our process here in Iowa and that is why I feel very good about the fact that Iowans are comfortable with what we're doing here and we're doing it right.

Lynch: When I go to elected officials' town hall meetings, Senator Grassley, Senator Ernst, Congresswomen, questions come up about this. People don't believe the outcome of the 2020 election. They don’t believe their vote counted. They believe the election was stolen. And they are asking these questions in public meetings. What is the impact on elections and democracy when people are willing to stand up in a public meeting and say, the election was stolen? What are you going to do about it?

Pate: Well, if we don't counter by giving them examples of how we're protecting it then they may win that dialogue and when they win that basically the Russians or the Chinese or whoever you want to identify here win without firing a single bullet, they won, democracy will be something of the wayside and we can't let that happen. So my job is to make sure we're putting the facts out there all the time so that the public stays informed. And when some of the groups say these kinds of things they perhaps don't have the same impact because the rest of the audience is going, well wait a minute that can't be quite true because I know we use paper ballots in Iowa, that can't be quite true. We do post-election audits or we know we have poll workers, they need to be informed so they're not going to be susceptible maybe to misinformation.

Lynch: Do you feel like the biggest threat is coming from outside from Russia, from China, from these bad actors? Or is it homegrown?

Pate: Well, it shifts. But I think the foreign agents, if you will, they play off of those. They're very sophisticated. When they sense there is any kind of group, even if it's a small one, they are going to help manipulate that message. They do a lot in the cyber world where they will push out a message in tandem with what some of these groups are saying and that can cause even more of a focus on it and give them a bigger bully pulpit. But right now it's still about a lot of folks in the United States, it's in Iowa yes but I see it more in some other states, who are just frustrated because they haven't figured out why their person didn't win. And we need to work harder to explain, if you want your candidate to win you have to work harder yourselves to turn the votes out. But the process has to stay on the top of our minds. And my job I'm the referee. I don't get to wear a team jersey. And one of the things I really want to see us do in Iowa, and I hope other states will do, is don't change the rules midstream. We've got to stay out of court and we can't let things shift during the process because that is when the public starts questioning what is going on.

Pfannenstiel: Iowa is set to become ground zero for a different type of election soon. We're starting to see republicans come in ahead of the 2024 republican caucuses. Meanwhile, we're seeing national democrats taking steps to reorder the presidential nominating process, possibly moving Iowa back further into the line or creating rules around caucuses. Is there any world in which Iowa could shift from a presidential caucus into a presidential primary state?

Pate: Well, I'm sure they're looking at that closely. The caucuses are a party building event. I don't have a formal role in it. But as an Iowan myself and as a republican I have a vested interest. I think Iowa has done a good job of being first-in-the-nation when it comes to caucuses. I'm preaching to the choir here. But we're kind of doing the job interview here in Iowa and we can do it in such a fashion that the whole nation can watch it and is avails all candidates an equal opportunity. You don't have to be the one who has got all the connections or the one who has got the most money, they can come here on a more level playing field and be competitive in that sense. And I think we've done a good job on that front. So I hope we can continue in some capacity in that area. The republicans have signed on for another cycle. The democrats have changed their process so we'll have to see how it unfolds.

Pfannenstiel: Would you, given all of this conversation about trust in elections and trust in the process, I know the caucus is somewhat different, but would you support moving to a simpler process so that there is more trust, there is a deeper understanding of how this moves forward in a primary process compared to a caucus?

Pate: Well, I think that the republican and democratic parties have an ongoing challenge of how they are going to present their process, if you will. And, again, I've worked with the caucuses as someone who has run a caucus, I participate in caucuses, I feel that it's pretty hands on, specifically on the republican side because it's all transparent, you're seeing it all. And I don't think the democrats differed greatly on that at the actual physical location site. The unfortunate scenario has been more tabulating is how they get the information from their caucus site to some central location and I think those bugs could be worked out for them. I don't know, primaries serve a whole different capacity, it's a whole different game and that is something the parties will have to look at.

Henderson: Just to put a finer point on it, republicans essentially take a straw poll and the winner is the person who got the most straw poll votes. Should democrats do that instead of all this math and the hoopla?

Pate: Well, as I said, I don't get to run the caucus, but it would make things easier most certainly.

Lynch: Is there a possibility that we could have a republican caucus and a democratic presidential primary?

Pate: Anything is possible on that front. I'm hopeful that we won't go that route because administratively it could be very interesting because you can see some twists and turns in that kind of approach.

Lynch: Sure. I want to ask you about the future of voting. You talked earlier about cybersecurity concerns. But there's a lot of talk about Internet voting, all mail voting, ranked choice voting. Do you see these things happening? Is this an evolution in voting that just changes are inevitable?

Pate: Well, we always have discussions about how we want to improve or change some of our voting processes. If you asked me this question 20 years ago I would have thought we would be voting on the Internet or at least on our telephones in some capacity. But times have changed meaning that we're a little more conservative now because of the fraud issues that people are concerned about. But the one thing about voting is it's kind of like a restaurant with a menu. What happens is your customers come in and they like certain food items and they're always welcome to some new ones but they don't want you to take the old ones off the menu. And that is how voting works. There are those, I want to be able to vote in person on Election Day, that's going to be around. And then there are those who want some of the other approaches. And the question comes back and is how many of those things can we put on a menu and be successful? Because I want to make sure everyone is confident in the integrity of the process and we have to also deal with the managing of it. So I think we've got a pretty good balance in Iowa right now. Again, if we're one of the best states in the country when it comes to voting and we have over 92% of our eligible voters registered, but we do see a shift. The folks voting absentee, that is moving up dramatically. It's probably well over 65% now. But we still have those who like voting in the mail or they like doing curbside voting or they want to go to the courthouse. So that is still our menu.

Lynch: Some nations have a voting holiday where they hold an election and it's a holiday like any other nationally recognized holiday. Some nations require citizens to vote and they face a penalty, a fine, if they don't vote. Should we use measures like that to encourage participation?

Pate: Well, those are interesting topics that we quite often will have around a table and I just go back as I said a moment ago, when you're looking at a state that already has very significant voter turnout and voter participation I'm not sure how we would want to go into those areas when other states who have tried that aren't doing as well as we are. And I think that is a factor we have to put into the equation. And we do try to make things available to them. We require employers to give people time off to vote if their work period is restricting them in some capacity on our voting day. And I think with all the things we have we're still, again, we're one of the leading states in the country. So I'm going to kind of run with the winner.

Henderson: Let's circle back to the beginning of our conversation about some of the legal changes you think the legislature should make regarding petition signatures. Do you expect the legislature and hope that the legislature will make those changes before they adjourn in 2022?

Pate: No, I don't expect that.

Henderson: Why not? You just said things should be set because we don't want to be sort of messing with the apple cart in 2024.

Pate: Well, because the nomination papers are over with now so it's not as pressing of an issue. But we've already started the discussions. My staff has been working on it and I heard the chairman of the state government committee on the House say he was going to do something as well. So it's something we will be pursuing over the summer and making sure we're ready for the next cycle.

Henderson: Well, let's talk about getting ready for June 7th. That is the date of the primary. We may ask you a few questions about the details. But first of all, the ballots are printed, correct?

Pate: They're being printed.

Henderson: They're being printed. So if I live overseas, how do I get a ballot?

Pate: That is UOCAVA and we can go right to the Auditor's website or ours and we have links there that will set them up and they can get their request in.

Henderson: So if I want to vote absentee, what is that process like? What are my deadlines?

Pate: The deadlines, you can actually start requesting those absentees right now and then to be successful the cutoff date is May 23rd because the mail is not overnight delivery, folks. So we want to make sure you understand that is how the timeframe for that goes. And then they'll be sending them out the 18th, May 18th is when the ballots will get mailed out to everybody.

Henderson: And that absentee ballot has to be in the county auditor's office --

Pate: The absentee ballot physically needs to be in the auditor's office on Election Day, June 7th.

Henderson: Are there time changes in terms of Election Day voting, primary day voting?

Pate: 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Henderson: And that is an hour earlier than --

Pate: That is an hour earlier and that was changed the last cycle.

Henderson: Okay.

Lynch: I want to ask you about those ballots. I've been seeing stories that there is a shortage of the quality of paper needed to print ballots and that the costs have gone up, like everything else, over the past two years. There is a supply chain issue and a cost issue. Are you running into that?

Pate: Not here. We have reached out to the suppliers just to get kind of a sense of what is going on because we want to make sure our counties are successful and they have all indicated they feel comfortable they have enough envelopes, they have enough stock. But it is something you have to watch and be ahead of the game on so we can anticipate it. And you're right, costs have gone up. And I don't think that is going to change.

Henderson: Brianne and James and I often ask you, what is your prediction for turnout for the primary election? It certainly can't be more than it was during the pandemic, right?

Pate: Well, for the primary we always like records, we like to see them broken, there's no doubt about that. But this one is a little different. You're right. We've set records in the last 2 election cycles and I would be thrilled just to hold onto the same level of participation. If it wants to grow, hallelujah, I think that's fantastic. But those things are driven by the candidates, they really are. And if they feel there is some competitiveness and fire in the belly then they're going to go out and vote. I'm not sure that's quite the same intensity this cycle around. And actually some of the candidates, they don't like that, they would like to have that fire, if you will, to have folks inspired to get out there and vote. So I'm not dusting off my crystal ball for this one, I'm just going to make sure we're ready for whatever turnout we get.

Henderson: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us today. And before we leave, we'd like to recognize a panelist who has joined us here today. James Q. Lynch, you have been seeing his byline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He has also worked at the Iowa Falls newspaper and a newspaper in Owatonna, but he is going to retire soon and we want to wish him well and thank him for the service to the voters of Iowa and to people who are interested in stories about state government. Congratulations on a well-earned retirement.

Lynch: Thank you very much. I am fortunate to have been a part of Iowa Press and the important work that Iowa Public Television does.

Henderson: And to you, our viewers, today and every day, thanks for watching Iowa Press. You can watch it anytime at iowapbs.org.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.