By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — Identification requirements for voters, election security and a user-friendly business registration system are driving the race for Iowa’s next Secretary of State.
Republican incumbent Paul Pate is inextricably tied to the state’s new voter ID law that draws strong political opinions, but also has attempted to tackle technology upgrades to the state’s elections and business registration systems.
Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear is the first black woman to earn a major party’s nomination for statewide office in Iowa and whose campaign has been well-funded and supported by national party leaders and organizations.
Both are small business owners, with political experience.
Pate owns an asphalt company and DeJear a consulting business.
Pate previously served as secretary of state, state legislator and mayor of Cedar Rapids. DeJear worked on former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in Iowa.
Also on the ballot is Libertarian Jules Ofenbakh, a lawyer from West Des Moines. The Libertarian Party earned official party status for the 2018 elections after its showing in 2016.
Democrats’ interest in and support for DeJear has pushed the race to unprecedented fundraising levels. DeJear has raised nearly $779,000 with nearly 14,000 donations, according to fundraising records. By contrast, Pate in his victorious 2014 campaign raised just more than $266,000 with not quite 600 donations.
“I think that people are excited throughout our entire state to make change happen in their communities,” DeJear said in an interview. “I’m hopeful.”
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Pate said he recognizes the forces he is up against, but is counting on voters to make their decisions based on his record and not based on the money pouring into his opponent’s campaign, much of it from outside the state.
“I have a lot of confidence in Iowans that they’re watching how well you do in the job and they’ll be the best judge. You can call it a job interview or you can call it a job review in my case, and they’ll make some decisions on that,” Pate said in an interview.
One element of Pate’s job review will be the new voter ID law. Initiated by his office, tweaked and approved by the Republican-led Iowa Legislature, and signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, the law requires voters to present a state-approved form of identification when voting. The law does not require a photo identification; some approved forms of ID include a driver’s license, passport, military ID or a state-issued voter ID card that the Secretary of State’s office delivered to registered voters without a driver’s license.
Voter ID laws have been politically contentious: proponents say they are necessary to ensure integrity in elections, while opponents say voter fraud is rare and that the measure’s true intent is to suppress minority voting.
Pate said providing structures around the most fundamental rights is not unique to voting.
“I have the right to bear arms, but there are certain things that I have to do that go along with that,” Pate said.
Pate said initiated the bill once he saw Republicans held majorities in the Iowa Legislature and the governor’s office, virtually ensuring some form would pass.
“Voter ID was going to pass. The votes were there. The momentum was there,” Pate said. “I took it upon myself to say, ‘Paul, you need to get out in front of this so that what we do is voter-friendly.’ And it needs to create the goal we want, and that is assuring voters of that integrity without creating a barrier that was something they couldn’t overcome.”
The law is undergoing a soft rollout this year. If voters fail to provide an approved form of identification at the polls, they can submit a ballot if they also sign a statement testifying to the validity of their identity.
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The new law did not appear to have a voter suppression effect earlier this year: Iowans set records for total votes and early votes in a primary.
DeJear opposes the voter ID requirements, and if Democrats controlled the state lawmaking process and opted to undo the law, she would support such an effort.
DeJear said she would use the office to ensure as many people vote as possible.
“I want to increase voter turnout. And I want to make sure that every eligible voter in our state is registered and has equal access to the ballot box and knows when their election is,” DeJear said.
Pate said under his watch the office has poured extensive resources into protecting the integrity of Iowa elections under the threat of attacks from foreign adversaries. Early this week, he held a news conference alongside officials from the state and federal homeland security departments to assure Iowans their votes are safe.
The state’s computer systems are constantly under attack from hackers, he said, but the election system is not threatened. He said the primary safety measure is the simple fact that votes are cast on paper ballots, not online.
DeJear has said if elected she would appoint a position dedicated to election security.
Pate said he is pleased that during the past four years the office has, in his view, made it easier for businesses to register with the state thanks in part to technological upgrades from increased state funding he secured.
But he says there is more work to do on that front, and he would like another four-year term.
DeJear also wants to make the business registration process more seamless and use the office to promote programs for small businesses.