Bret Nilles, the chair of the Linn County Democrats, showed up at the home of Chelsea Newton at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to inquire about signatures on a nomination petition for Geralyn Jones, who is running for school board.
Nilles never introduced who he was, he just immediately questioned Newton about her and her husband’s signatures. Nilles had the nomination petitions because Linn County Auditor, Joel Miller, publishes all the nomination petitions online automatically.
“I was just asking who had signed the nomination petition from that address,” Nilles said. “The nomination papers are on the Linn County Auditor’s Election website. They put them out there so the public can review online or you can view them in the office.”
Newton was not pleased to have someone unannounced asking her about her signature at her front door.
“He started off the conversation not even introducing himself, just immediately asking if I was Chelsea Newton,” she said. “I answered yes. He then proceeded to show me my signature/spouse’s signature on the signature form which I signed for getting Geralyn Jones on the school board for Linn Mar.”
Nilles questioned Newton on the validity of the signatures. She told him she signed for herself as well as her husband, who gave her permission to sign while he was at work.
“He then proceeded to ask me if Geralyn TOLD me to sign for my spouse,” Newton said.
She told Nilles she was signing on behalf of her husband as he gave permission to sign while he was at work.
“I explained to him that (Wednesday night) my husband is signing an affidavit specifically reiterating the fact that he is/was aware and granted me permission to sign for him that day,” Newton said. “Bret then responded with ‘after the fact.'”
Nilles attempted to end the conversation with that, but Newton realized she never received any sort of identification from him. When asked for his name, he told her Bret Nilles. She asked if he was affiliated with the school district and he said no.
“He told me he’s a resident of Marion, Iowa,” she said. “I questioned him as to why he felt that means he can then look me up and come to my home! He didn’t answer.”
Newton said Nilles had three pages of highlighted names and was likely planning to go to many more homes to question the signatures.
“This is NOT OK,” Newton said. “The fact there are people out there who will PULL DATA from the auditor site and show up at your home is bizarre and weird.”
Miller, who is running to be Iowa’s Secretary of State, said his office has posted affidavits of candidacy and nomination petitions online so “anyone anywhere” can review the documentation.
“My office does this for any candidate in Linn County who files in our office,” Miller said. “In the long run, this effort has saved my office time and money from various inquiries from the media, curiosity seekers and other parties.”
Miller said he isn’t an attorney or a peace officer but believes the practice is legal.
“I neither saw nor heard anything in the video that led me to believe the door knocker was threatening,” he said.
Clearly, Newton, who lives at the house, felt differently.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, they require individuals to sign a form and be observed while reviewing nomination petitions. They do not put the information out for public consumption by “anyone anywhere,” though it is a public record and anyone can request to review them.
Ryan Dokter, the Sioux County Auditor and president of Iowa State Association of County Auditors, told The Iowa Standard he had never heard of a county putting the petitions online like that. The candidate list is put online, but the nominations are in his office.
While he isn’t aware of any other county in Iowa putting the petitions online, he said he would doubt there is widespread nomination petitions being put on county websites.
“I think a lot of us, or many of us, are doing what we do here in Sioux County,” he said. “Just posting those candidates’ names who are actually running.”
Dokter said he’d agree there would be fear of retribution if anyone anywhere could access the list of individuals who signed a nomination petition.
“I’d almost liken the people that have signed those papers to almost like a voter list request from the Secretary of State’s office because these people are saying they live in that area to be able to nominate that person,” Dokter said. “But yeah, it’s some information that probably should be requested in-person to review those. Kind of the practice that you laid out from the Secretary of State’s office. I would agree with that process rather than putting them online.”
Dokter has no oversight over other county auditor offices, saying they have to make decisions for themselves.
Even though the petitions are public record, Dokter said it is the kind of thing they’d want someone to file a formal request to receive or come in-person to view it versus putting it out there for anybody to find.
Video provided by Emily Phillips