Staff Columnist

Good intentions no excuse for poor judgment, bad execution

The Linn County Auditor's Office sent more than 90,000 sample ballots to area households. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The Linn County Auditor's Office sent more than 90,000 sample ballots to area households. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Linn County elected officials have a problem when they cannot sit in the same room and have a conversation about county business. When that toxic environment spills over, negatively affecting the ability of residents to interact with government, Linn County has a problem.

This particular problem began a few weeks ago when Linn County Auditor Joel Miller decided to mail more than 90,000 sample ballots, absentee ballot request forms and return envelopes to “occupied households” across the county. According to a post on a personal website maintained by Miller, this was done with good intentions. Specifically, Miller wrote, there are two ballot changes he believes even longtime voters should see ahead of time — elimination of straight-party voting, and his decision to list candidates in a specific order (Libertarian, Republican, Democratic, no-party organizations and nominated by petition).

This is not a mailing required by Iowa law and, after speaking with other county auditors around the state, it is an unusual decision. In fact, several in other auditor’s offices questioned how Miller could not have known what would happen next.

Some Linn County residents were confused by the mailing, believing the ballot, which was screen printed with the word “SAMPLE” across its front, to be an official ballot. They filled it out and mailed it back in the provided envelope. Some didn’t include a return address. A handful of others listed fake return addresses, leaving election officials to wonder if the returned ballot was serious or merely a joke.

Other potential voters used the mailing as intended, and about 4,000 absentee ballot requests were returned.

Those who returned a completed ballot and provided a valid return address have been contacted by election officials. But no one knows what to do about those who completed ballots and provided no return address. Will those residents know they can still vote on Election Day? Everyone hopes so, but no one knows for sure.

Miller’s responses to this issue have been, at best, defensive. First, the printer was at fault for not realizing the screened text across the sample ballot was too light to read. Second, he can’t control whether people took time to read and follow instructions. Third, a widespread, follow-up mailing would only further confuse those who didn’t follow instructions on the initial offering. Fourth, concerns about the mailing, especially by members of the Board of Supervisors, are politically motivated and undeserving of a response.

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The first deflection, that the printer did it, is a hard pill to swallow unless all the sample ballots were printed too lightly. That’s because this wasn’t one large printer run of a single document. Based on where people live in the county, ballots are different. Not everyone in Linn County votes on the same Statehouse or supervisor races. So, the ballot my family received is likely different from the one your family received.

Unless the print run for each precinct ended with too-light lettering, it should be fairly easy for Miller and his staff to determine which sections of the county received questionable sample ballots. Did Miller or his staff perform that type of due diligence? Was research done to determine if returned sample ballots were primarily from a specific area? Miller hasn’t said.

While Miller hasn’t directly labeled those who returned the sample ballot as ignorant, the implication is evident. On his website he wrote, “a bunch of people decided to NOT read and/or did not comprehend the letter that accompanied the mailer” and “a bunch of people either did not see or ignored the word SAMPLE.” It could just as easily be written that an election official either did not consider or care that many residents would be expecting a ballot to arrive at their home in an envelope marked as “Official Election Mail.” Assigning blame is easy; owning mistakes is more difficult.

And, frankly, this isn’t the first time Miller has cited good intentions after making a unilateral decision. Four years ago, local school district officials were presented with an unexpected bill of nearly $5,000 in connection with a renewal election for its Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, or PPEL. Without discussing it with district officials, Miller sent postcards to registered voters, alerting them to the upcoming election, and invoiced the district for the cost. Good intentions, poor judgment, bad execution.

More recently, a group of high school students, hoping to inform classmates and the public about the upcoming election, were told by Miller to stop because their display didn’t include all candidates on the ballot. A local organization’s candidate forum was ordered to move from a satellite voting location on the day of the event due to Miller’s concerns about electioneering. Good intentions, poor judgment, bad execution.

Surrounding all of this is the toxic environment that has been allowed to fester in Linn County.

Miller refused to attend a recent supervisors’ meeting and gloated about it on his personal website.

“If I had attended the meeting, I have no doubt the meeting would have crossed the line from fact-finding to character assassination in seconds,” he wrote after reviewing video and using statements made during the meeting to declare it electioneering.

And, like most things Miller does, however badly executed, there is a thread of legitimacy — in this case created by his refusal to participate. What should have been a conversation between adults working for the residents of Linn County became a frustrated litany of accusations and rumors. Supervisors and the auditor need to be better behaved and should want to create a less hostile working environment.

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The toxic stew most county residents have had the luxury of watching and laughing at from afar has finally boiled over, perhaps leaving dozens of citizens disenfranchised.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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