Government

Judge rules Linn County must toss prefilled absentee ballot request forms

Trump campaign wins injunction against Auditor Joel Miller

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller listens to an argument by attorney Alan Ostergren during a hearing in Linn County Distri
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller listens to an argument by attorney Alan Ostergren during a hearing in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. A lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign and state and national GOP groups, represented by Ostergren, against Linn County Auditor Joel Miller seeks to invalidate absentee ballot requests after prefilled forms were sent to registered voters in the county in July by the Linn County Auditor’s Office. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Siding with President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, a judge ruled Thursday that about 50,000 absentee ballot request forms mailed out by Linn County Auditor Joel Miller be invalidated.

Sixth Judicial District Ian Thornhill took only a few hours in granting a temporary injunction against the forms he found had been improperly filled out in advance with personal information — including voter identification numbers — by Miller’s office.

These were not ballots but rather forms telling voters how they could request absentee ballots to vote in the November election without having to show up in person at polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump has made mail ballots a campaign issue, asserting they open the door to voter fraud. In addition to bringing the court fight to Linn County, his reelection campaign also has sued Johnson and Woodbury counties in Iowa. Those other cases are pending.

Thornhill ruled Miller is “temporarily ordered” to follow provisions of a newly amended state law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature, and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s directive on absentee ballot request forms.

Miller must also contact the voters in writing to inform them he can’t accept the forms, and ask them to resubmit a blank form — without the voter’s information.

In response to the ruling, Linn County said in a statement the auditor’s office will void each absentee request form that was prefilled with voter information. The auditor’s office also will mail new request forms and return envelopes to each voter affected by the ruling in mid-September.

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In addition, the Iowa Secretary of State’s office also will send absentee request forms to voters in the next few weeks.

In accordance with state law, the auditor’s office will mail ballots starting Oct. 5 to those who request them. Voters have until 5 p.m. Oct. 24 to submit absentee ballot request forms.

Thornhill, in his ruling, said the president’s reelection campaign and GOP have legal standing — a specific personal or legal interest — in this litigation, and have shown a likelihood of being injured or harmed, due to the fact that all counties in Iowa don’t have the financial capacity to create prefilled absentee ballot request forms like Linn County.

In considering if Miller violated his duty to obey Pate’s directive, Iowa law implies lawmakers intended for the information in the application for an absentee ballot to be provided by the voter him or herself — not the government.

If the information isn’t provided with a ballot request, the commissioner of elections is to supposed to obtain the missing information. This section was recently amended, he noted.

“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.”

Thornhill concluded that Trump’s campaign has a likelihood of showing as the matter is litigated that a voter must complete the form and county auditors cannot mail prefilled forms.

The plaintiffs also could possibly show Miller’s actions are contrary to the statutory directives of the Legislature, Thornhill said.

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During a hearing earlier Thursday, Alan Ostergren, arguing for Trump, said Miller failed to “obey” a directive when he mailed request forms with voters’ personal information. He asked the judge to invalidate the forms already returned and prevent any more being sent out.

Pate, a Republican, told auditors in his directive the forms must be mailed the prescribed way to ensure “uniformity.” His office hadn’t taken any action to prevent the mailings until Wednesday, ahead of the hearing for a temporary injunction, when Pate issued Miller a “notice of technical infraction and letter of instruction.”

Pate, in his notice, said this is a remedy to ensure this type of action doesn’t occur in the future. He instructed Miller to comply with the directive, which was “unanimously approved by the bipartisan legislative council.”

In a separate letter, Pate asked Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller to start an investigation of Miller for violating Iowa law. “As you’re aware, violations of Iowa Code chapter 715C can be prosecuted as consumer fraud under Iowa code chapter 714,” he wrote.

Lynn Hicks, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General’s Office, said it has not responded.

Assistant Linn County Attorney Elena Wolford argued during the hearing that the Trump campaign lacked a specific legal interest in the lawsuit. While it cited concerns about election fraud, but there is no proof — it’s a “hypothetical” concern, she said.

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

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