A Candid Interview with Dubuque’s Bulwark for the Local Election Process

Coy Pederson

There are many thankless offices—elected and career alike—in our local government, but arguably none more so than the highly influential and often overlooked County Auditor position. For this piece, under the auspices of my Communications class: public writing, I took it upon myself to get a glimpse at our own County Auditor, Kevin Dragotto, who began his tenure in the position after the 2020 Election. Being the premier local election official for Dubuque County, Mr. Dragotto has both great responsibility to his voters and the election process itself, which at times can pose to be a challenge for those in his position, especially in the face of local and national scrutiny. Now, I confess, I have always been an enthusiast of politics, yet I never actually took the time to learn about the election process, which is considered to be the most sacrosanct aspect of democracy; however, that would soon change on a cold and windy December 6 afternoon.

Much to the chagrin of one of my professors, I decided to skip my 1:30 class so I could run down to the courthouse for an impromptu interview with Mr. Dragotto. I had no interview set up and as I walked through the courthouse suddenly something dawned on me—I was about to walk in without an appointment to interview an elected official—how audacious of me! Dubuque has one of the nicest courthouses that I’ve ever been in (I haven’t needed to be in too many, fortunately) as it is richly adorned with Romanesque architecture, exuding five floors of grandeur and prominence. Upon entering the courthouse, I had to check my bag and go through security. I was astounded by the sheer busyness of the hustle-and-bustle of people participating in everyday life. Meanwhile, we students are grinding out the final weeks of the semester to get to that point in our lives where we can be full participants in the society and community around us, a sobering fact of life. I had no problem finding the County Auditor’s office as it was posted on a black placard with white lettering, reading “fourth floor: County Auditor Office.”

I approached the front desk of the County Auditor’s secretary who kindly phoned Mr. Dragotto telling him there was a student wearing Loras College attire seeking an interview. I was immediately struck by Mr. Dragotto’s willingness to accommodate a seemingly haphazard, amateur journalist. Mr. Dragotto has a comfortable corner office that looks out on Central Avenue and the sprawling panorama that is Dubuque’s downtown skyline—the sight was truly beautiful to behold, as the city was illumined by the mid-day sun. I was warmly received with a firm handshake and a recollection that Mr. Dragotto and I had met once before, which surprised me greatly, and I think it is a testament to his down-to-earth demeanor; he truly cares about his constituents.

Kevin Dragotto’s life is defined by his penchant for service. After high school, Dragotto enlisted in the United States Army, serving for 3.5 years in Southeast Asia. Although originally from Chicago, Illinois, Dragotto along with his wife and daughter moved to Dubuque in 2014. Dragotto, prior to his current position as County Auditor, held a position as Controller for TFM Co. in Dubuque and has extensive experience in accounting and small-business operations management. It was in 2019 when Dragotto became aware of an impending vacancy for the County Auditor office. Dragotto, wanting to get involved in public service, decided to file for the upcoming 2020 Election. Dragotto was attracted to the County Auditor office because it is a catch-all position, administering everything from elections to taxes and GIS mapping; needless to say, there’s a great variety of work every day. I asked a few questions to gauge what exactly the position as County Auditor/Election Commissioner has on the bearing of the election process, eliciting the following response from Dragotto: “We administer all aspects of the election process from start to finish, including filing candidates, overseeing the primary process and general election, the distribution and collection of absentee ballots, establishing precinct locations which are done every 10 years from the census (polling places), and we are responsible for the training of over 300 poll-working personnel.” Ultimately, if the election goes without a hitch, this culminates in the certification of the election results. In our meeting, I also asked whether or not there has been external pressure or any undue influence from special interests or party affiliates so far in his tenure. Fortunately, as of yet, Dragotto said there has not been any influence since there’s been no election so far during his term, “nor would it affect my work if there had been,” said Dragotto. “I try to stay above the political fray, even despite my party affiliation, I remain accountable to all my constituents, who are comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.”

If the 2020 Election has taught us anything, it’s that “fear sells,” said Dragotto. What your opinion is causes discontentment and distrust in the election process; why now has this become an issue? “It’s a difficult thing to put a finger on it, but if there was widespread or rampant fraud, then why doesn’t it benefit those who are supposedly behind the ‘stolen election.’ If we were going to conduct a fraudulent election, wouldn’t you think we’d do it in such a way that it would turn out in your favor? Every independent and state agency has said that there was no widespread voter fraud. Congresspeople behind closed doors will say there was no voter fraud. The concerning thing for me is that even before there’s an election, people are already claiming voter fraud in an attempt to delegitimize the victory of the winning party (which is most often targeted at Democrats).” The most disconcerting thing for me during this interview is how officeholders like Dragotto are often villainized simply for doing what’s right. Dragotto reassured me of the rigorous vetting that all elections, particularly those in Dubuque, undergo in any given election for on- and off-year elections. “We have a very rigorous testing process for all the individuals involved in the election as well as our equipment. Election judges are routinely tested and trained for any given situation that might arise. We are not just 100 percent certain the results are accurate; we are 150 percent certain. The ballots themselves are audited by bipartisan groups—Democrats and Republicans—who open up absentee ballots and count the in-person ballots, too. For anyone who might be skeptical of the integrity of the process, I invite them to get involved in the processor to stop by my office so I can dispel some of the disinformation going around in the media. We will always run the safest and most secure elections; that being said, we will adapt to any issues or threats of election security,” said Dragotto.

Election integrity is a salient issue in today’s political climate because it has been manufactured as a problem. The difficulty for Dragotto is maintaining fidelity to his job and his constituents while other public officials, politicians, and even ex-presidents are using their “bully pulpits” to sow seeds of mistrust in the election process; in so doing, Dragotto and those in his position have to remain vigilant and in some cases respond preemptively to these threats to our democratic process. When voting for a candidate, Dragotto emphasizes the importance of assessing candidates based upon “the measure of their actions and their words.” Iowa’s 1st Congressional District representative is currently Ashley Hinson (R). Rep. Hinson has cozied up to the ex-president even after she and her colleagues were under threat by the very same mob incited by the man whom she has been stumping for across the state of Iowa. We as voters have an ethical responsibility regardless of party affiliation to support candidates who will unequivocally support the rule of law and the sanctity of the election process. Despite being a registered Republican, I wholeheartedly endorse prospective Democratic candidate Liz Mathis for the 2022 Election in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. It is high time that we put the election integrity issue to bed and this starts at the local level. As the 2022 Election looms ever closer, we voters can be rest assured that with Kevin Dragotto at the helm of our local election process, we will be A-OK, or to put it in his words, “The buck stops with me.”

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