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State and national officials ask voters to have confidence in Iowa elections


State and national officials ask voters to have confidence in Iowa elections

May 28, 2024 | 10:30 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
State and national officials ask voters to have confidence in Iowa elections
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate spoke about security efforts in the upcoming state primary election alongside state and national officials at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston on May 28, 2024. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate joined state and federal officials at a news conference Tuesday, telling voters that their ballots will be accurately and fairly counted in the upcoming primary election.

Iowans will have the chance to vote in primary races for congressional and state offices next Tuesday, June 4. Early voting began May 15.

Pate said he wanted Iowans to know that election officials and cybersecurity efforts are working to ensure that no interference or other problems are occurring in the primary — and that the same officials are already getting ready for the Nov. 5 general election.

“My message to Iowans is this: If you decide to vote in the 2024 primary, know that your vote will be counted accurately and securely,” Pate said. “You can rest assured that all of us here today are taking all the necessary steps to protect your vote and to protect the integrity of Iowa’s elections.

The accuracy and fairness of elections across the country has become an issue of heightened concern following the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump — the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024 — falsely claimed that the election was stolen. These claims have been linked to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where supporters attempted to keep Trump in power by preventing the certification of Electoral College votes.

While speakers at the news conference did not mention Trump and specific concerns related to his candidacy, officials acknowledged that distrust in elections has grown significantly in recent years. An October 2023 Gallup and Johns Hopkins University’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute found that only 40% of Republicans are very or somewhat confident in the accuracy of U.S. elections, while 80% of Democrats and 67% of independent voters said they were confident in election results.

Pate, a Republican, said Iowa has had a successful track record of secure elections and there are multiple measures that make concerns brought up in other states irrelevant to Iowa’s election results. Voting machine accuracy, for example, is not a concern because Iowa uses paper ballots, Pate said, and ballot tabulators are tested before each election to ensure they are functioning and counting results correctly.

“Iowa’s vote tabulators are not connected to the internet,” he said. “The physical protection of each piece of voting equipment is accounted for in all 99 counties.”

The state is also working with the Iowa National Guard, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to identify and solve problems related to cybersecurity or voting inaccuracies, he said.

On primary election day, cybersecurity and election officials with the national and state government, as well as Iowa National Guard, will be working at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston to monitor and respond to threats or problems reported with voting, John Benson, director of Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said.

Benson said officials have worked to respond to issues in this format for several election cycles, and they have conducted a “rigorous training and exercise regimen” in recent months to guarantee their ability to respond to threats.

“Our goal, as we’ve always said, is we want to make sure that Iowans have that confidence in casting their vote, and they understand that they can vote freely, they can vote safely and clearly, that’s the goal of my department is the secretary and ultimately support the citizens of this state,” Benson said.

Cait Conley with the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said the agency plans to conduct six tabletop simulations of potential threats and situations that Iowa officials may encounter during the 2024 election in the months before the general election.

Conley said the agency will also work with election offices in all of the state’s 99 counties to implement website cybersecurity measures and transition web domains to “.gov” addresses — a way for voters to better verify the authenticity of the website and results.

Conley said the agency is also involved in work related to poll workers’ safety. Physical threats, harassment and abuse against poll workers and polling locations have also increased in recent years, according to research from groups like the Brennan Center — a trend Conley called “concerning.”

“This is not who we are as a country,” Conley said. “As Americans, we are better than this, and as a veteran, I want to thank these brave and selfless election officials who stand steadfast in their commitment to the security and integrity of the American democratic process. We … are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they defend the very foundation of our democracy.”

Eugene Kowel, FBI special agent in charge, told Iowans to call the FBI if they “become aware of suspicious activity or activity of a violent nature” related to elections, as election security is one of the agency’s top priorities.

Pate said roughly 10,000 Iowans will work at precinct polling locations across the state in the June primary. Recent legislation has also improved resources for poll workers and election officials, he said, allowing for rural counties and areas to have access to more consistent and up-to-date training that may already be available in many more populous areas of the state.

Pate said the state has successfully worked with county auditors in areas impacted by recent tornadoes and extreme weather, like Greenfield, to ensure that voting locations are open or relocated in wake of destruction caused by recent storms. While the secretary did not share a number on expected turnout in the primary election, he also said he’s hoping for a “robust” turnout.

“It’s not the same thing as this fall — (where) you have a clear contrast between the parties — so we’ll wait and see,” Pate said.