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Oops! Secretary of State's Clerical Error Sets Back Iowa Ballot Measures

Supporters of the initiatives will have to wait at least two years before they go before voters.

Protester holding a sign that says "We Support the Second Amendment."
Running elections is the highest-profile part of a secretary of state’s job. But in most states there are myriad other responsibilities, such as handling business licenses, overseeing notaries, and performing a wide variety of disparate clerical functions. Most of those are mundane, but screwing them up is not a victimless mistake.

This year, a clerical error by the Iowa secretary of state’s office set back adoption of two constitutional amendments by at least two years. “Whether it’s by oversight or intent, the secretary of state shouldn’t have effectively a pocket veto over otherwise duly passed constitutional amendments,” says state Sen. Zach Whiting.

Here’s what happened: Last year, the Iowa Legislature approved two potential amendments. One would have clarified the gubernatorial line of succession. The other would have enshrined Second Amendment-style gun rights language in the state constitution, guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms and effectively eliminating gun control statutes.

In Iowa, constitutional amendments have to be passed by two consecutive legislatures, then go to voters for final approval via ballot measure. There’s one other small step, however, and it went wrong. The state constitution requires that when an amendment has been passed the first time, voters must be informed at least three months ahead of the election in which they’ll elect a new legislature. To make it official, the secretary of state is in charge of publishing notices in newspapers.

This time, the publishing requirement fell through the cracks. Apparently, the error was innocent. Legislators send over official documents in folders known as “bill jackets,” but there’s no outward difference in appearance between a piece of paper for routine filing and a constitutional amendment that needs to be published. The secretary of state’s office missed the deadline. Secretary Paul Pate, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, apologized to the governor, legislators and the Iowa Firearms Coalition, which backed the gun rights amendment.

The damage had been done. The clock has been reset and the amendment, which likely would have appeared on the 2020 ballot, won’t appear before 2022, at the earliest. The same thing has happened before. Back in 2004, Secretary of State Chet Culver failed to publish notice about a proposed amendment to strike the words “idiot” and “insane” from the state constitution in describing mentally incompetent people who aren’t allowed to vote. The process had to start over and that amendment wasn’t approved until 2008.

In response to all this, legislators this year voted to take away the duty of publishing notices from the secretary of state, making themselves responsible for the task. Presumably, amendment sponsors will be motivated to make sure it gets taken care of. 

Legislators have cut out the middleman, but ended up rubbing a little salt in the secretary of state’s wounds. While his office will no longer have the authority to publish notices, the price of taking out newspaper ads will still come out of his budget.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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