Government

Democrats challenge Iowa district court rulings on absentee ballot requests

The Linn County Auditor's Office, which mailed absentee ballot request forms to active registered voters, has been sendi
The Linn County Auditor’s Office, which mailed absentee ballot request forms to active registered voters, has been sending postcards to those who returned the requests to let them know the ballots will be mailed Oct. 5. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

After two Iowa district court judgments invalidated at least 64,000 absentee ballot request forms in Linn and Woodbury counties, Iowa Democrats are challenging the basis of those decisions.

The Iowa Democratic Party, joined by Democratic Senate and House campaign committees, filed petitions Monday challenging the constitutionality of the Secretary of State’s Office directive telling county auditors not to send registered voters absentee ballot request forms prefilled with their personal information, including their voter identification number. The Democrats also are challenging the secretary’s authority to issue the directive.

If Democrats are successful, the absentee ballot requests returned by tens of thousands of Iowa voters in Linn and Woodbury counties would be validated. A ruling in favor of Democrats effectively would nullify judges’ rulings on challenges brought by the Republican National Committee that by filling in the voter identification number auditors were violating a directive from the Secretary of State’s Office.

However, Secretary of State Paul Pate thinks that if the Iowa Democratic Party is successful, it would repeal his office’s plans to mail absentee ballot requests to voters as he did before the June primary election to reduce the potential exposure to COVID-19 at polling places. Those forms were not pre-filled.

“It is unfortunate that the Democratic Party is now opposed to a statewide mailing of absentee ballot request forms,” Pate said in a statement. “They apparently only want voters in Democrat-heavy counties to request ballots, using request forms prefilled with voters’ personal information.

“Not only would this lawsuit prevent my office from mailing absentee ballot request forms statewide, it would also remove additional flexibility for Iowa’s military, overseas and health care facility voters,” Pate said.

The court rulings in Linn and Woodbury counties require the auditors there to inform voters in writing that their absentee ballot requests cannot be honored and tell them they must submit a fresh application if they want to vote by absentee ballot. Voters also have the option of in-person voting Nov. 3.

A hearing on a third challenge by the RNC is scheduled for Sept. 9 in Johnson County.

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The three auditors — all Democrats — sent more than 200,000 absentee ballot requests that were prepopulated with voter identification numbers. Their intent, the auditors said, was to make it easier for eligible Iowans to safely vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the RNC claimed the auditors “willfully and unilaterally disobeying Iowa election law” by sending voters the prepopulated request forms.

“It is implausible to conclude that near total completion of an absentee ballot application by the auditor is authorized under Iowa law where the Legislature has specifically forbidden government officials from partially completing the same document,” Linn County District Court Judge Ian Thornhill agreed.

The court rulings in Linn and Woodbury counties require the auditors in those counties to inform voters in writing that their absentee ballot requests cannot be honored and tell them they must submit a fresh application if they want to vote by absentee ballot. Voters also have the option of in-person voting Nov. 3.

A hearing on a third challenge by the Republican National Committee is scheduled for Sept. 9 in Johnson County.

The three auditors — all Democrats — sent more than 200,000 absentee ballot requests that were prepopulated with voter identification numbers. Their intent, the auditors said, was to make it easier for eligible Iowans to safely vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the RNC claimed the auditors “willfully and unilaterally” disobeyed Iowa election law by sending voters the prepopulated request forms.

Pate sent voters absentee ballot request forms ahead of the June primary election to reduce the potential exposure to COVID-19 at polling places. Those forms were not prefilled.

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After auditors announced plan to send prefilled requests, Pate issued a directive that only blank absentee ballots requests could be sent to voters. In their challenges, Democrats argue that exceeded his authority and conflicts with auditors’ authority to “conduct elections” and protect the “rights ... safety, health ... and convenience” of voters.

In announcing the legal challenges by Democrats, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Mark Smith said “partisan politics have no place in free and fair elections.”

The challenge, he continued, “will help ensure that no Iowan is forced to risk their health during a pandemic in order to cast their ballot.”

Pate’s action and changes approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature in June are a “malicious” effort by Republicans “to suppress our fundamental right to vote,” Smith said.

The Democrats’ petitions can be seen here and here.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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