The Voters’ Watchdog: Why Scott County Auditor Candidate Michael D. Elliott Deserves Your Attention Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 22 October 2008 02:35

Reader issue #707 (Author's note: River Cities' Reader Publisher Todd McGreevy is a volunteer for and donor to the campaign of Michael D. Elliott.)

 

Michael D. Elliott was asked a question about closed sessions of the Scott County Board of Supervisors, and it didn't take long for the conversation to go in another direction. While Elliott speaks eloquently about his plans for the Scott County auditor's office, many discussions come back to the U.S. Constitution.

"Where can you freely exercise any rights that you supposedly have?" he asked. "You can in your own home, but I think that's about it. ... If you have to ask permission from the government to exercise a right, it's no longer a right. It's called a privilege. And we live in a world of privileges now. The Bill of Rights doesn't exist. It's a fairy tale, really, in today's world."

This is what makes Elliott the most intriguing local candidate in next month's election. He's an independent running for the type of office that's typically reserved for a loyal party soldier. His larger interest - upholding the Constitution - is much bigger than the Scott County auditor position he's seeking, but it reflects his seriousness as a candidate.

And considering that the right to vote is a constitutional right, there's a significant overlap between the two.

He called the auditor's office "the position that has to provide the most amount of honesty and integrity and transparency." He said in an interview that as the commissioner of elections, the auditor should be nonpartisan. "The auditor's office specifically is the hub to all of the government - all local government. Everything that occurs in the local government goes through the auditor's office."

Seeking the position vacated when Karen Fitzsimmons died in April - after serving more than three decades - Elliott is running against Democrat Roxanna Moritz and Republican Steve Ahrens. Even if you live in Illinois or think the position doesn't merit much attention, Elliott is still worth getting to know.

Put simply, he's turned a campaign that was bound to be about personality and party into one about issues and political philosophy.

"If you want to allow people to be citizen advocates and get them more involved with the government, you have to have somebody ... in that position that can actually provide all the transparency that's needed so citizen advocates can actually make decisions like holding their local officials more accountable," he said. "If we can't see what's really going on, then we're really powerless."

 

The Last Stand for a Citizen Advocate

Michael D. Elliott Like Ahrens, Elliott is in his early 30s. Like Moritz, he has a high-school diploma with additional vocational education. (Moritz is in her early 50s. Ahrens has an MBA.)

That's where any similarities end. Elliott is a Ron Paul supporter who leads the local Super Liberty organization (SuperLiberty.com) and public-access TV show. He owns the Techies computer-service company.

He's thoughtful and well-read on constitutional issues, and he's been hosting screenings of Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections throughout the community as part of his campaign. (Two screenings remain between now and Election Day.) While he said there have not been problems with Scott County elections, he's been focusing on election integrity - in particular ensuring that computer-tabulated results can be and are verified using paper ballots.

Elliott has never run for office before, and got on the ballot this year with nearly 500 petition signatures. So he's a relative novice, because Moritz and Ahrens were both Davenport alderman. Ahrens then ran for Davenport mayor and is now development director for the city's Levee Improvement Commission; Moritz is now a member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors.

Part of Elliott's appeal is that he's not the (political) party animal that Ahrens and Moritz are. He said that lack of partisanship is critical for an office that runs elections.

"I can provide a nonpartisan stewardship role to that position," he said. "Instead of being tied to a particular party or have some sort of special interest I cater to, I would only be beholden to the actual voters of Scott County."

He takes shots at both of his opponents, suggesting that their nominations are the reasons he has been able to mount his campaign. "There seems to be a discontent with the other two candidates that are running, and a lot of people don't feel like they are qualified to run for that position specifically," he said.

What qualifies one for the position he left vague. He admitted that his educational background doesn't distinguish him from his opponents. "The only thing I have is experience" in restaurant and retail management and running his own business, he said.

He added that a technical knowledge of the particulars of the office isn't necessary because of the experience already on staff. "The elected position is the voters' watchdog, specifically, and to provide leadership and direction in that office," he said.

What separates Elliott is his hobby studying political philosophy. It might not be directly applicable to the job of county auditor, he conceded, but "it gives me a broader perspective on the purpose and role of government, and a better understanding of why it's important to uphold ... your oath of office. The auditor also does have to swear an oath to the Constitution."

So while it might seem an odd fit for someone whose public passion is the U.S. Constitution to run for county auditor, Elliott argues that his commitment to accountability makes it a good fit.

Elliott believes in transparency to the extent that he thinks the Scott County Board of Supervisors shouldn't go into closed session. (The county auditor is the clerk for the board.)

While the auditor can't stop the Board of Supervisors from going into closed session to discuss pending litigation or personnel matters, for instance, Elliott said he'd raise the issue privately with supervisors.

"They're a bad idea," he said. "You create a lot of suspicions." Because taxpayers are the "owners" of government, he said, nothing should be kept from them. Citizens, he said, should think, "I should be allowed to be involved. I am the owner, after all."

Elliott said he believes that the auditor can help people be watchdogs, with the office's election and financial-reporting responsibilities: "In our current highly institutionalized, large bureaucratic government, the auditor's office is the only window that the people have into the government itself, to see what the heck is going on and to be able to disseminate the information and do something about what they see. It's the last stand for a citizen advocate."

That might spur more people to seek public office. "Maybe a lot more people will step up and start running for offices, and then we can change things that way," he said.

And while he's a student of the Constitution and believes that the federal government has grossly overstepped its rights and responsibilities under that document, he said he believes in local government rather than no government.

"Government is a necessary evil," he said. "I think ideally the local government can best serve the people." The primary role of the state and federal governments, he said, is ensuring that government action "doesn't end up infringing on the rights of the individual."

 

Raising the Issues

Michael D. Elliott Elliott said that he was asked to run for auditor because some people were discontent with the parties' nominees.

"Almost half of the people don't want Ahrens that are Republicans; almost half don't want Moritz that are Democrats," he said. "That's only from the feedback I get from people ... ."

Beyond that, he said, the candidates weren't talking specifically about the changes they'd make. Ahrens' Web site offers no specific promises, while the only concrete promise Moritz's Web site makes is to implement House File 653, which allows for same-day voter registration.

"They're not making a commitment to anything," Elliott said.

Elliott has pledged to maintain paper ballots as a way to ensure that computer tabulations can be verified. He also said he will implement a 5- to 10-percent spot check of ballots, comparing the electronic count done by the optical-scan system with hand-counted ballots.

And his candidacy seems to be having an effect.

In the Quad-City Times on October 11, Ahrens and Moritz appeared to evade questions about paper ballots and election integrity. In that article, neither candidate promised to maintain a paper ballot, and reporter Kurt Allemeier wrote: "Ahrens and Moritz say he [Elliott] is raising an issue that isn't relevant."

But in response to a brief questionnaire from the River Cities' Reader, Ahrens embraced some of Elliott's issues. "Fair and transparent elections is the chief job of the county auditor," he wrote.

He answered "yes" to two questions based on Elliott's candidacy: "Will you implement a hand count of a certain percentage of paper ballots (5 to 10 percent, for example) to ensure the accuracy of computer-tabulated results?" and "Will you maintain a voting system with a paper trail, assuming that there's no state or federal law mandating something different?"

Ahrens' and Elliott's responses to the questionnaire can be found below. Moritz did not respond to the e-mailed questionnaire or a follow-up phone call.

Elliott has other ideas. He said he wants to improve privacy at the voting booth in some way, and he said he'd like to implement "financial transparency" similar to what Missouri does (http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov). "I'd like to do a real-time expenditure report online, to show what's going on within the county ... as far as expenses go, and then also any contracts ... - to post those contracts online as well," Elliott said.

He also said that he thinks he has "a better chance [of winning] than a normal independent. ... I think I wouldn't have a chance if either of the parties would have actually selected somebody that was generally liked throughout the entire party."

But he said that he's already been successful: "If I lose, what have I really lost? I've raised the bar in the county. I've raised issues. I've tried to get the other two candidates to take positions."

 

Candidate Web Sites

Roxanna Moritz, Democrat: RoxannaMoritz.com

Steve Ahrens, Republican: Ahrens4Auditor.com

Michael D. Elliott, independent: Elliott4Auditor.com

 

Responses to Questionnaire Sent to Candidates for Scott County Auditor

The River Cities' Reader sent a questionnaire to the three candidates for Scott County Auditor. The responses of Republican Steve Ahrens and independent Michael D. Elliott are below. Democrat Roxanna Moritz did not respond to the e-mailed survey or a follow-up phone call.

What improvements will you make to the management of the auditor's office?

Steve Ahrens: In these economic times especially, government needs to make certain it does all it can to provide taxpayers the greatest bang for their buck. The first thing I will do as County Auditor is to review all expenditures with an eye for saving tax dollars. One such idea that should be explored further is to combine school board and municipal elections. While election law is largely governed at the state level, combining these elections would save tax dollars and increase voter participation. Through working across party lines and with other county departments, we will find ways to save tax dollars and provide the quality services Scott County citizens have become accustomed. Further, Scott County has employees with many years of service to the organization. We need to make sure there is no disruption in the quality of service delivered to taxpayers by planning for the future. In addition, ensuring that employees have the necessary tools to provide quality service is essential.

Michael D. Elliott: All improvements in management of the office will derive from what serves the citizens of Scott County first. As an outsider looking in, it is premature for me to make specific statements about management improvements, especially for an office staff that has dozens of years of experience and history with a very proven and effective track record. My management style is one of collaboration and open communication. I can ensure voters that I will not manage the Auditor's Office and its staff based upon cronyism. In other words, I don't have a list of my "people" I will be bringing in, to improve management.

What improvements will you make to customer service in the auditor's office?

Steve Ahrens: Karen Fitzsimmons served the taxpayers of Scott County admirably for 32 years. I simply hope to build on the strong foundation she laid. The most important thing Karen did was to recruit and develop a very professional and capable staff to serve the taxpayers of Scott County. Under my leadership, the Auditor's Office will continue to offer the customer-friendly, accessible service to which they are now accustomed. In addition, for the convenience of all citizens, we need to quickly complete the work underway to make more accessible the county mapping system and related "plat room" information by placing it online.

Michael D. Elliott: All services and products the Auditor's Office provides to the community will be evaluated on user friendliness and accessibility. The citizenry's viewpoint on these services will be critical to improving customer service. One such way to gain these insights are to engage citizens to act as "secret shoppers" and "audit" our performance so to speak. This can be a volunteer program that could be implemented throughout other departments should it be successful in providing valuable critiques.

Whoever follows in Karen Fitzsimmons' footsteps will succeed by establishing a culture of collaboration amongst staff, recognizing and supporting the most experienced and effective as leaders from within and leading by example. I see the role of auditor as one of stewardship. This includes maintaining and enhancing the safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the vote, keeping abreast of industry standards, technology and tools such as mapping and accounting software, as well as continuing membership and leadership where possible within county, state and national governmental associations related to the Auditor's office.

What improvements will you make to ensure the integrity of elections in Scott County?

Steve Ahrens: Conducting fair and transparent elections is the chief job of the County Auditor. The more citizens understand the election process and voting equipment, the better armed with knowledge and more confident they can be in the outcome of any election conducted in Scott County. To this end, as pre-tests are conducted on voting equipment prior to an election, we should invite the public to participate. The 2008 Presidential Election is the first one with this new voting equipment in Scott County. This equipment allows (and any future additions must allow) for greater checks and balances through a special marking system. Basically, a paper trail receipt is printed during an audit of the election. We must always protect the fair, common-sense rules governing the concept of "one person, one vote" by ensuring that voter fraud attempted is voter fraud prosecuted. Finally, the recent phenomenon of early voting, with the appropriate safeguards in place, provides a positive opportunity for additional voters to participate in the election process. For years, Scott County has enjoyed a tradition of accurate and fair elections. This is not by accident, but by active and energetic leadership. Leadership to recognize when updated equipment is needed, leadership in recruiting and training the very best in staff and elections officials and leadership to constantly test the voting equipment being used. Further, as Scott County Auditor, I will engage the public through outreach and educational opportunities, not only about our voting process and equipment, but also through citizenship workshops in our schools.

Michael D. Elliott: We need to continue to maintain the current paper ballot system with a credible audit to ensure the highest level of integrity and protection of our election process. This is the only way to ensure that future generations will enjoy fair, open and honest democratic procedures.

Having all paper ballot counts done out in the public view and ensuring a publicly documented chain of custody for all ballots would increase transparency in elections.

Will you implement a hand count of a certain percentage of paper ballots (5 to 10 percent, for example) to ensure the accuracy of computer-tabulated results?

Steve Ahrens: Yes.

Michael D. Elliott: Yes, this is a goal I have and would like to take the lead in Iowa as this auditing function is already well within the purview of the Auditor's Office and should be implemented as a continued safeguard of our systems' accuracy. If the outcome is what everyone thinks it will be, accurate and reliable, then we are only showcasing how strong Scott County's system is. If there is an issue and it is not accurate then we are doing our job by checking and fixing the system. There is no downside to implementing this audit.

Will you maintain a voting system with a paper trail, assuming that there's no state or federal law mandating something different?

Steve Ahrens: Yes.

Michael D. Elliott: Yes. We should continue to disallow the use of privatized, paperless computerized balloting systems which have been referred to as "Black Box Voting." These systems lack transparency because they eliminate a paper ballot audit trail. This should not be misunderstood as an aversion to technology. Any automated systems put in place need to have a paper audit trail for all to see.

I would hope that the Auditor's Office could help build public awareness about the value and integrity of a paper ballot standard so that if it should be an issue in the future then the people are aware and prepared to influence their legislature.