DES MOINES — A divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday halted some provisions of the state’s new identity verification requirements for voters casting absentee ballots, but let stand a 2017 change that reduced the number of days allowed for early voting from 40 to 29 for the November general election.
In its decision, the court affirmed portions of a lower-court injunction that said election officials cannot enforce signature-matching requirements for absentee ballots; cannot require voters to include an identification number on forms requesting absentee ballots; and cannot instruct voters without elaboration that an ID is required to vote in 2018.
Chief Justice Mark Cady issued the five-page order one day after the panel heard arguments on the state’s request to lift the district judge’s temporary injunction.
Justice Daryl Hecht, undergoing treatment for melanoma, did not participate in the decision.
Justices continued to bar three provisions but to reverse a fourth:
l Signature matching: Four of the six justices affirmed the lower court ruling to bar the state from using a signature-matching system on applications for absentee ballots.
Two justices — Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield — broke with the majority, preferring not to temporarily enjoin the signature-matching provisions but indicating that any absentee ballot received by election officials after the deadline that was deemed to have a signature mismatch would be treated as a provisional ballot. The voter then would have an opportunity to show that the signature on the envelope was authentic.
l Absentee ballot requests: Five of the six justices affirmed the temporary injunction stopping the requirement that absentee-ballot applications contain a voter verification number as set forth in 2017 legislation, with Waterman being the lone dissenter.
l ID in 2018: The justices unanimously affirmed provisions of the injunction that prevent the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office from including on the absentee ballot application language stating: “An absentee ballot cannot be issued until ID number is provided” or similar words indicating such information is “required;” and also from disseminating materials stating that “Iowa voters will be asked to show a form of valid identification when voting,” or similar words, without including a clear statement that identification is not required to vote in 2018.
l Early voting period:
Justice Brent Appel did not concur with the five majority justices who lifted the injunction on reducing the time frame for mailing out or casting absentee ballots from 40 to 29 days before Election Day.
Last month, Polk County District Judge Karen Romano issued the injunction ordering the early voting period be reset from its current 29 days to its previous 40 days, and blocking certain ID requirements of the law. The more restrictive bill was passed by the GOP-led Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2017.
The lawsuit seeking to block portions of the measure before the Nov. 6 midterm elections was filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Iowa State University student Taylor Blair.
During Thursday’s oral arguments before the court, an attorney representing Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said data from dozens of small elections and the June primary suggest that absentee voters have been able to cast ballots and that the revised system is working.
However, the attorney representing LULAC’s position argued that provisions of House File 516 impede Iowa voters by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on potential voters.
Joe Enriquez Henry, president of LULAC Council 307, hailed Friday’s Supreme Court decision as “a major victory for voting rights and a powerful affirmation of the principle that voting should be easy and accessible for all.
“Because of the court’s ruling, in the upcoming fall elections, Iowans will no longer be forced to produce an obscure voter ID number in order to cast an absentee ballot, nor will they be in danger of having their ballot thrown out due to inaccurate signature matching,” he added.
Pate issued a statement expressing his disappointment in Friday’s split decision, but thanked the justices for expediting the case and saying he looked forward to “a full hearing on the merits of the case.”
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“Voters benefit from having clarity in how the election laws will be applied for the November general election,” Pate said in his statement.
“It is important for voters to remember that for elections held in 2018,” he added, “preregistered voters are required to provide an approved form of identification or sign an oath of identification before receiving and casting a ballot at the polls on Election Day. We will continue to work with and follow the guidance of the Attorney General’s Office in messages to voters and training for county auditors and poll workers.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price called Friday’s outcome “a win for democracy.”
“This bill was designed, from the beginning, to reduce the numbers of Iowans expressing their voice in our elections, and while the most egregious parts of this legislation were rightfully struck down, there is still more work to be done to protect our democratic process.”
The injunction is in effect at least until the underlying lawsuit in district court is decided.
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