116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — In what could be the first test of a state law that holds county auditors criminally liable for election malfeasance, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office said it is investigating the Linn County Auditor’s Office over a ballot error in a Linn County precinct.
The error came to light the same day that Democratic Linn County Auditor Joel Miller tried — unsuccessfully — to unseat Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate in Tuesday’s election.
The Linn County Supervisor District 1 race was missing from one of the “ballot styles” in the Putnam Township area, but it was on other ballots in Ely, which is in the area, and elsewhere in the district. Miller acknowledged the error during a news conference and said no other races on the ballot were affected.
Secretary of State Office Communications Director Kevin Hall said Wednesday that the error could be “an apparent technical violation of Iowa’s election laws.”
“If it is determined the apparent violation constitutes or may constitute election misconduct, we will refer the matter to the Attorney General and Linn County Attorney as required by Iowa law,” Hall said.
Hall said the conversations with the Iowa Attorney General Office and the Linn County Attorney’s Office so far have centered on the possibility of a contested election.
Pate said Tuesday afternoon he had been in touch with the county attorney and the attorney general as well as representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
“This is a very serious oversight that has taken away the ability of voters to make their voice heard on who their next county supervisor will be,” Pate said.
Under a law passed by the Iowa Legislature last year, county auditors can face felony charges for failing to follow guidance from the secretary of state. An auditor may face a fine of up to $10,000 for a technical infraction of state election law or failure to follow guidance from the secretary of state.
The law also states that “upon issuing a technical infraction, the state commissioner shall immediately inform the attorney general and relevant county attorney if the apparent violation constitutes or may constitute election misconduct under this chapter.”
But Miller said that the situation is the “Secretary of State trying to dramatize something for political benefit.”
“For criminal wrongdoing, there has to be intent. Does anyone think we intentionally left a race off to have ourselves punished?” Miller asked. “... It’s (expletive) statements for political gain, nothing more. I even consulted with the Linn County Attorney’s office prior to my release and press conference yesterday.”
Miller and Pate’s relationship has been contentious over the past few years, with lawsuits against Linn County from the Trump administration over absentee ballots as well as Miller running against Pate in this election. Pate won his third term Tuesday.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks confirmed they were aware of the issue.
“Our office has been in touch with the Secretary of State’s office and is working with them on this matter,” Attorney General Office communications specialist Ashlee Kieler said.
“We are fully aware of the issue and it remains under investigation at this time,” Maybanks said. “We are just gathering information and consulting with the Attorney General.”
The ballot error was brought to light after Mark Banowetz, the Republican candidate for the District 1 supervisor post, went to vote in that precinct in the middle of the day Tuesday and saw that the race, his name, and that of his opponent, Democratic state Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, were missing.
Running-Marquardt won, according to the unofficial results, by almost 4,000 votes.
As of Wednesday, Banowetz hadn’t decided if he was going to take any action, which could include requesting a recount.
“I’d like to put this behind me,” Banowetz said.
Running-Marquardt said she doesn’t “want there to be confusion out there, and I don't want people to be disenfranchised on voting.”
A total of 536 voters are registered in the Putnam Township area, and of those 280 voted on Election Day with another 98 voting absentee. Miller said he does not think this race would meet the qualifications for someone to contest the election with the margin of victory being so great.
“You only do contested elections if the votes that were not counted would make a difference in the end result and, here, they would not,” Miller said Wednesday. “I don’t foresee us having any recounts, either. Nobody can do anything until the results are certified next Tuesday and then there are options, but I’ll keep everyone informed about dates and deadlines.”
Iowa State Association of County Auditors President Jennifer Garms of Clayton County said there hasn’t been a situation like this before.
“Even prior to the infractions, I do understand how something like this could happen because there’s a lot of ballot styles that come into play,” Garms said. “But we will see what comes about from the Attorney General’s Office and Secretary of State’s office.”
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