Government

Trump campaign wins another injunction over absentee ballot forms

Judges find county auditors filled out too much in advance

Alan Ostergren (out of frame) gestures toward Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert (right), Sept. 9 as he argues on beh
Alan Ostergren (out of frame) gestures toward Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert (right), Sept. 9 as he argues on behalf of the Republican National Committee at a hearing at the Johnson County Courthouse in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — With a ruling Monday in Johnson County, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has won a trifecta of injunctions in Iowa against county elections officials it argued violated rules in how they sent absentee ballot request forms to voters.

Judges in Linn, Woodbury and now Johnson counties have granted the campaign the temporary injunctions it sought, ordering the 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.

The forms are not the ballots themselves, but forms that allow voters to request ballots so they can vote absentee in the Nov. 3 election — thereby avoiding in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Trump campaign argued the auditors wrongly included voters’ personal information in the request forms.

“This should effectively close the case on rogue county auditors trying to skirt Iowa’s widely-supported voter ID laws,” Aaron Britt, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said in a statement Monday. “Iowa Republicans will continue advocating for accessible and fair elections, and ensure the chaos and confusion created by rogue county auditors is put to an end. Iowans must be able to trust the validity and have confidence in our elections.”

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, along with County Auditor Travis Weipert, said in a statement they were “disappointed in the judge’s ruling, but the most important thing is that all voters in Johnson County can cast their votes safely. We will be sending blank absentee ballot request forms to voters in Johnson County so that any voter who wishes to vote absentee will be able to do so.”

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They also will be hosting satellite voting sites in various places in the county and will offer “drive through voting.”

Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill, in his ruling, said it was “implausible to conclude” that an absentee ballot application almost completely filled out in advance by an auditor is allowed under Iowa law where the Legislature has “specifically forbidden government officials from partially completing the same document.”

Thornhill said this is “bolstered” by the fact that emergency measures, enacted by the Legislative Council, were required before Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate was allowed to prefill otherwise “blank” request forms with the election date and type.

Weipert admitted he preemptively took action to prevent voters from turning in forms without the required information, such as voter identification number or driver’s license, in order to get the absentee ballot.

Under Iowa law, an auditor is “specifically forbidden” from doing this, Thornhill said.

“The court concludes that plaintiffs have a likelihood of showing that the voter himself or herself must complete the ABR (absentee ballot request) form, and that county auditors cannot prepopulate the ABR form for voters,” he said in his ruling.

Thornhill said the real dispute in this case is the application of two Iowa laws that designate the Secretary of State as the state commissioner of elections, and gives him supervisory authority over the county commissioners of elections — auditors. The Secretary of State also has authority to prescribe uniform election practices and procedures, as well as forms, and may exercise emergency powers, according to the ruling.

Thornhill said the Trump campaign has a likelihood of showing at trial the auditor’s actions are contrary to directives of the Legislature.

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Secretary of State Paul Pate issued an emergency directive about the request forms with the authority of the Legislature. Neither Weipert or any other county auditor challenged the directive as unconstitutional in court before mailing out the prefilled forms, Thornhill noted.

Weipert argued he was legally permitted to mail the prefilled forms under Johnson County’s home rule authority.

However, Thornhill agreed with the plaintiffs that the general principles of home rule authority relied on by Weipert don’t belong to him but to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. The board would have the authority to enact an ordinance falling within home rule status, but in this case, no ordinance requiring prefilled absentee ballot request forms was adopted.

Thornhill pointed out that granting the temporary injunction doesn’t mean Johnson County voters who choose to vote absentee will lose their right to vote.

It means they “simply cannot” use the prefilled forms mailed by Weipert to request their ballots.

Correcting this error now before any votes are cast preserves every Johnson County voter’s right to have his or her vote counted, Thornhill concluded.

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

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