Staff Columnist

We need more 'rogue' auditors like the ones Trump is targeting in Iowa

The Linn County Auditor's Office, which mailed absentee ballot request forms to  active registered voters, has been send
The Linn County Auditor’s Office, which mailed absentee ballot request forms to active registered voters, has been sending postcards to those who returned the requests to let them know the ballots will be mailed Oct. 5. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

When President Donald Trump stopped by this past week to tout his swift derecho aid he neglected to mention his campaign is trying to make Linn County’s general election a disaster area.

Donald J. Trump for President, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican Party of Iowa are suing Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. His crime, in their view, was sending 140,000 absentee ballot request forms to voters with the information filled in, including the voter’s PIN number, to make it easier to vote by mail during a pandemic.

Identical lawsuits have been filed in Johnson County, where Auditor Travis Weipert also sent out filled-in request forms, and in Woodbury County. A hearing in the Linn County case is set for Thursday at 11 a.m.

Unlike the derecho, the lawsuits are predictable and weak.

In June, Republicans who run the Legislature tacked a last-minute amendment onto a budget bill barring county auditors from filling in missing information from a voters’ ballot request form. In the past, when a voter mistakenly left information blank, or when their handwriting was hard to read, auditors checked the voter database and filled in information. People got ballots and voted.

Republicans cried fraud, with great fervor but, as usual, no evidence. So now auditors have to contact voters to get the missing or illegible information. All the change really does is gum up the works and make it harder to obtain a ballot. It’s yet another sour dose of GOP backed voter suppression, and a similar measure passed a few years ago was thrown out by a judge.

The new law also prohibits the secretary of state from sending request forms to all Iowans unless he obtains the permission of the 24-member Legislative Council controlled by Republicans.

Secretary of State Paul Pate did obtain that permission in July, and his emergency directive ordered auditors to send only blank forms. Linn, Johnson and Woodbury defied the order. Tens of thousands of request forms were sent out and tens of thousands have been returned by voters.

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So Republicans went to court. They want every voter who sent back request forms to be notified the forms are invalid and they must start over. The lawsuit also raises the specter of ballots obtained through filled-out forms being challenged.

It would spawn the sort of electoral chaos Trump is depending on to either pull out a narrow win by suppressing the vote or to provide fodder for reckless claims the election was rigged and fraud denied him a second term.

Republicans point to the measure passed by lawmakers, but it doesn’t mention prohibiting auditors from sending out filled-in request forms.

Republicans claim Pate, as state commissioner of elections, has the power to order blank ballots under Iowa Code chapter 47.1. But the chapter also says “the state commissioner shall adopt rules describing the emergency powers and the situations in which the powers will be executed.” Check the Iowa Administrative Code, which lists the administrative rules needed to execute laws, and you’ll find no rule among emergency election procedures allowing Pate to dictate the format of request forms.

Pate can’t simply control local elections by edict.

Republicans argue the filled-in forms aren’t uniform, but there have always been varying request forms sent by counties, political parties and other groups.

Other counties don’t have the resources to send out filled-in forms, the GOP argues. According to the Linn County Auditor’s Office, its request form mailing in the state’s second largest county cost $99,000. The cost to add more information to the forms was “negligible.”

Republicans contend they’re trying to protect ballot security, but the lawsuit doesn’t cite a single instance of actual fraud.

So Trump’s campaign and the GOP groups claim “rogue” auditors are breaking the law, but cite no law or administrative rules that apply. They also cite no court rulings to bolster their case.

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In the eyes of the current Republican Party, any effort to make voting easier is going rogue. We need more rogue auditors, and a secretary of state who won’t buckle to political pressure.

What the Legislature should have done, instead of fantasizing about fraud and making it harder to vote, is provide more help and resources to county auditors to handle the large volume of absentee ballots likely to come in by November as the uncontrolled pandemic continues. It might also have been nice if the governor had taken the steps needed to control the pandemic.

Oh, and the president and his cronies also are kneecapping the Postal Service. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller wanted to join a multistate lawsuit to challenge postal changes but Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to give him permission.

The Republican line is that Trump must be protected at all costs, no matter how much damage he does.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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