Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate and Democratic challenger Joel Miller faced off Friday over contentious issues such as election integrity and ballot access, sharing a series of heated exchanges during a joint appearance on Iowa Press.
It is one of the only times the two candidates are expected to share a stage ahead of the November election when voters will determine who serves as secretary of state.
The winner will oversee Iowa’s elections, supervise its 99 county auditors and provide business services.
Paul Pate: The 2020 presidential election was legit
Pate, who is seeking a fourth term, said he disagrees with Republican secretary of state candidates in other parts of the country who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
“Well, first I would remind people as the secretary of state you don’t get to wear a team jersey, you’re the referee,” he said. “So you follow the laws and the rules that you have on the books. And when you look at the last presidential election, if we follow the laws on the books like we did here in Iowa, then we have a legitimate winner and we need to recognize that.”
Pate said he was “not shy about” sharing that perspective with secretaries of state who held the opposing view when he was head of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Joel Miller: Disavow the election deniers
But Miller, who is the Linn County Auditor, pressed Pate to go further and condemn people like former President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani.
“Why not disavow the election deniers?” Miller said. “You’re not disavowing them, and so what’s happening is all 99 county auditors are having to disavow them individually instead of the chief election administrator in the state disavowing these election deniers.”
Pate said he and his office routinely work to dispel election misinformation.
“I would tell you that I have spoken out on a regular basis as recently as yesterday when my bipartisan working group of auditors put out a statement from me taking to task these individuals who are putting out this misinformation,” he said. “I do it every single day.”
The job has become politically fraught after former President Donald Trump and his allies fanned unfounded accusations that the 2020 election had been rigged against him.
Both candidates acknowledged the highly polarized climate and said it’s important to ensure that Iowans know the process is secure.
Candidates mix it up over ballot access
But they differed in their views of how and when Iowans should be able to access and return ballots.
Iowa’s Republican-led Legislature has, in recent years, approved new voting rules and restrictions the secretary of state must enforce.
In 2021, they passed a sweeping elections bill to reduce the state’s early voting period and close polls earlier on Election Day.
Iowans also must now ensure their absentee ballots are returned by Election Day, with few exceptions. Previously, absentee ballots just needed to be postmarked by Election Day.
“We have deadlines in our lives,” Pate said.
He said election officials and the secretary of state now need to spend time “educating the public, making sure they know what has to be done to be successful as voters, putting that public awareness out there all the time.”
Miller said Iowans can’t always rely on the speedy delivery of mail and may inadvertently miss deadlines, despite their best efforts.
“In some places in the state it takes six business days one way for a letter to get there and six business days to get back,” he said. “If there’s any procrastination or any delay in the mail system like there was in Clinton County where 46 absentee ballots were stuck in the mail system in Moline, Illinois, and those ballots did not get counted when there was a race separated by 7 votes, then we have a problem here.”
Candidates find common ground on voter ID
But Miller said at least one restriction — adding a requirement that Iowa voters show valid ID in order to cast a ballot — was a good change.
“It has not proven problematic in people’s access to the ballot box,” Miller said. “I am for voter ID.”
Pate thanked Miller as a “Johnny-come-lately.”
“I welcome you to the cause, Mr. Miller,” he said. “But you were not there when we crusaded for this and when we tried to get it passed.”
Iowans can already request absentee ballots from their county auditors, who will begin mailing them Oct. 19 — the same day early voting begins.