By Clara Ilkka
This is part II on coverage of Iowa’s absentee ballot application dispute; see part 1 here
When it comes to attention during presidential elections, Iowa is no stranger to hosting members of the press—usually in February, during its caucus. With all that has happened in 2020, the Iowa caucus may feel like it occurred eons ago, but the state is garnering attention later on, for more reasons than one. Along with having the potential to be a swing-state this year, Iowa has been at the center of a legal battle between Republicans and Democrats over absentee ballot applications. Despite the ongoing pandemic causing an increase in absentee ballot requests, the Iowa legislature passed into law an appropriations bill (HF 2643) that included new rules for how county auditors handle absentee ballot applications, which cannot be requested online through the Secretary of State’s website. This bill created its own set of challenges.
This change led to the first lawsuit brought against Iowa’s Secretary of State Paul Pate on July 14th. The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa brought suit on the grounds that HF 2643 unduly burdens qualified voters from voting absentee because the process of contacting voters over missing information that officials already have will lead to the rejection of their request forms, confusion, and “ultimately, disenfranchisement.”
Days later, on July 17th, Pate gave a new directive, requiring auditors to send blank absentee ballot request forms from the Secretary of State’s office. Prior to this order, county auditors were already in the process of sending out absentee ballot request forms; however, instead of being blank, county auditors, including Joel Miller in Linn County, pre-addressed information on the forms. This meant that voters only had to review the information, fill in anything that was missing, sign the form, and return it. This process allowed auditors to review and approve requests quicker, because it meant the information already matched what the state had on hand and it was less likely that information was missing.
Pate’s directive created a new issue: what about the prefilled forms that had been sent out already (and that county auditors, after the directive, continued to send out)? Less than a month after Pate’s directive, on August 10th and 14th, the RNC and Trump campaign brought action in state court against three county auditors, in Linn, Johnson, and Woodbury counties. In the complaints (1, 2), the RNC alleged that the “rogue” auditors knew about the directive but still sent pre-populated forms to registered voters in their respective counties, and that sending pre-populated forms could lead to votes being challenges and questions about election integrity.
In all three counties, the motions for temporary injunctions were granted, leading to over 64,000 absentee ballot applications already received being ruled invalid. In addition, tens of thousands of pre-populated requests that have already been sent out are now void forms, so if voters who are unaware of the ongoing legal issues fill out and return one of the forms, it will not be accepted. For specifics on how the lawsuits have affected Linn County, see Zee Huff’s post here.
After the first of the rulings granting injunctions came down, Iowa Democrats responded with lawsuits of their own, challenging Pate’s directive on both state constitutional and statutory grounds, seeking an injunction on the directive, and an order declaring the preaddressed forms not inherently invalid. In one complaint, laying out their constitutional arguments, Democrats argue that by imposing a substantial burden on the right to vote, which is explicitly protected in the Iowa constitution, the directive violates the due process rights of Iowa voters, as well as equal protection rights, because voters will be treated disparately based on how they received their request form. Additionally, they lay out claims under Iowa’s “home rule” amendments, which give county auditors power to conduct elections in a manner they see fit, as long as it’s consistent with the laws of the state. In a second complaint, Democrats challenge the administrative authority of Pate to even issue the directive, again turning to the “home rule” amendments and proper use of emergency powers.
As the election in November draws nearer, the answer to the questions raised in the Democrats’ lawsuit become even more important—especially as Iowa becomes a national COVID-19 hotspot, with, as of Sept. 2, an almost 11% positive testing rate. Because of the actions of auditors and Pate, some Iowans may receive multiple request forms in the mail, even if they’ve already returned one, which may cause confusion for some voters. If the pre-filled forms aren’t declared valid, then there may be people who believe they applied for an absentee ballot, but never receive one. If that is the case, then voters who do not properly request an absentee ballot by the October 24th deadline will be faced with a choice they hoped to avoid: voting in-person during a global pandemic, or not exercising their right to vote at all.