ELECTION 2020

Judge backs Iowa's limits on absentee ballot drop box sites

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2016, file photo, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate collects ballots during Iowa's Electoral Col
FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2016, file photo, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate collects ballots during Iowa's Electoral College vote at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

A judge has kept in place guidance from Iowa’s secretary of state that county elections commissioners can only set up absentee ballot drop boxes at or outside their offices.

Judge William Kelly rejected a request from a Latino civil rights organization and a group aligned with Democrats to block Secretary of State Paul Pate’s guidance and allow for drop boxes in locations such as grocery stores.

The ruling, coming nearly three weeks after Kelly heard arguments in the case, isn’t expected to have an impact because it comes so close to Election Day. Most absentee ballots have already been returned and auditors had dropped plans to add drop box locations even if Pate’s guidance was suspended.

Kelly said that requiring voters or their designees to return ballots to a location where the county auditor conducts business is “not a severe burden” on the right to vote. He noted that voters can also put them in the mail or vote in person, either early or on Election Day.

Iowa law says that absentee ballots should be returned to the county elections commissioner’s office by voters or their designees and is silent on the use of drop boxes to collect them.

Kelly said that it appears a change to state law would be required to allow drop boxes to be located off of county property.

He said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller was correct to scrap his plan to have three drop boxes at grocery stores. While that option would have been more convenient for citizens who didn’t want to mail their ballots, it might not have been legal, Kelly said.

Miller and other auditors wanted to add drop boxes to make it easier to allow for the contact-less return of absentee ballots, which have become a more popular way to vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pate, a Republican, initially told auditors that no drop boxes would be permitted under Iowa law. In September, he issued guidance clarifying that they could be located at auditor’s offices or on county-owned property outside their buildings.

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Majority Forward, a political action committee aligned with Senate Democrats, filed lawsuits seeking to block Pate’s guidance.

The groups argued that limiting voter access to drop boxes during the pandemic was an unconstitutional burden on voting rights and violated the home rule power of auditors. They argued that drop boxes located throughout the community could be considered the “commissioner’s office” under Iowa law.

Kelly rejected each of those arguments, saying Pate has the power to supervise county elections commissioners to ensure uniform election procedures. He said treating a remote drop box as an extension of the auditor’s office would go beyond the definition in state law.

The ruling is the latest in favor of Pate and Republicans, who have prevailed over Democrats in several lawsuits related to absentee ballot rules in Iowa.

At the request of President Donald Trump’s campaign, judges in August invalidated tens of thousands of absentee ballot applications that had been sent to voters in three counties already filled with their identification information.

Pate had issued a directive requiring all such applications to be mailed blank in order to ensure statewide uniformity, and the Iowa Supreme Court recently upheld his power to do so.

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In addition, the court last week kept in place a Republican-backed state law that blocked auditors from using the voter registration database to complete any absentee ballot applications that were incomplete before Saturday’s deadline. Those voters will not be sent ballots and will have to vote early in person or on Election Day instead.

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