Government

Fourth judge sides with Republicans in fight over absentee ballots

LULAC denied temporary injunction to stop secretary of state from enforcing new law that bans prefilled forms

IOWA CITY — Another Iowa judge has sided with President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, this time in a lawsuit brought by the largest Latino civil rights organization, in the fight over how absentee ballot requests are sent to residents.

The League of Latin American Citizens of Iowa, or LULAC, and Majority Forward, a national nonprofit that supports voter registration, asked the court to stop Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate from enforcing House File 2643, which bars county auditors from filling out voters’ personal information on the request forms.

The law, pushed through by the Republican-controlled Legislative in the final hours of the session, requires county election officials to directly contact voters by phone or email for any missing information. If the voter’s phone number or email address isn’t available, the auditors would then have to mail a letter to the voter requesting the additional information.

Pate, in a statement Monday, said there is an unprecedented amount of absentee ballot requests made this year and “people want to know their vote is secure.” “The overwhelming majority of Iowans have repeatedly said they support Voter ID” for absentee ballots, he added. “It’s legal, constiutional and fair.”

An attorney for LULAC didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment.

In an opinion dated Friday and released Monday, 6th Judicial District Judge Lars Anderson ruled he was denying LULAC the temporary injunction it requested because they are likely not to succeed on their constitutional arguments set out in the lawsuit, which contends the new law makes it more difficult to vote and violates due process and equal protection rights.

Anderson didn’t think the new law subjected voters to “arbitrary and disparate” treatment of similarly situated Iowans, as LULAC argued.

“There is no evidence in the record that would support a finding that the law was intended to treat similarly situated people differently or that there was a discriminatory intent behind HF 2643,” Anderson stated.

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The prohibitions in the law against auditors completing the missing information without contacting a voter would not likely be found to be unrelated to the integrity of the election process or be overly burdensome, he noted.

“Allowing an auditor to obtain and complete the missing absentee ballot request information arguably renders the unchallenged requirement that a voter provide the information meaningless,” Anderson said.

Anderson also didn’t find that the law violated procedural due process because safeguards are in place to ensure a voter’s interest in an absentee ballot are protected. There is a 120-day window for requesting a ballot, and each request include instructions and there is space for the voter to include contact information for county auditors to reach them. Also, if any information is missing, residents can vote in person on Election Day at their polling place, he said.

The new law is a policy decision, which many may disagree, but the court isn’t “free to invalidate a law” based the court’s or the public’s opinion about the relative merits of the law, Anderson said in the ruling. Absent a “constitutional defect,” the court is prohibited from second guessing when ‘the legislature makes a policy decision — right or wrong,’” Anderson said quoting previous case law.

“It is also clear, from the parties involved and the fact that HF 2643 was enacted on a party-line vote, that this matter is heavily ingrained with politics,” Anderson noted. “Perhaps legislation passed with bipartisan support enjoys greater public confidence and support, but, even if so, that does not impact the court’s review.”

Anderson also said a “law is a law,” which is required by the same standard of review by the court, regardless of the political makeup of the lawmakers who supported the law or the parties who will make legal challenges after it passes. Three previous Iowa judges — in Johnson, Linn and Woodbury counties — ruling in favor of the Republicans for three temporary injunctions against three Democratic county auditors to invalidate tens of thousands of forms mailed by them that already filled in some voter information.

The county auditors were directed to notify those voters and ask them to instead return a new “blank” form that will be sent to them by the Iowa Secretary of State, the county auditor or another organization.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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