By Clara Ilkka
With less than two weeks to go until the election, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a directive from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate invalidating pre-filled absentee ballot application forms sent out by county auditors in three of Iowa’s most populous counties. Because of the directive, courts have invalidated forms mailed to more than 200,000 voters. Those who sent in a pre-filled form were required to fill out and send in a new, blank form to their county auditors in order to receive an absentee ballot. Iowa’s deadline to request an absentee ballot was October 24th, so voters had only ten days to get their new forms in.
Back on October 5th, a judge in Polk County, Iowa, sided with Democrats and ruled that Pate had exceeded his authority in issuing the directive requiring blank forms. The district judge stopped enforcement of Pate’s directive and said the prefilled ballots were valid. In a quick turnaround, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a stay keeping the directive in place on October 6th.
On October 14th, the Iowa Supreme Court found for the RNC and held that the district court had abused its discretion because they incorrectly interpreted the language of the relevant section of the Iowa code. Section 53.2(4)(a) states that “to request an absentee ballot, a registered voter shall provide…” the information required in the application. By sending out prepopulated forms, county auditors violated this law by prefilling the information the voter is required to provide. Citing to Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the court found that the requirement that voters fill out all the information on their ballot request forms went towards the State’s interest in election integrity and only allowing eligible voters to cast a ballot. Using this line of reasoning, they shot down concerns of the district court that the invalidation of prepopulated absentee ballot request forms would make it more difficult to vote during a global pandemic. In addition to upholding the validity of Pate’s directive, the court also took issue with the fact that the Democrats had sued in Polk County, instead of one of the three counties where auditors sent out pre-filled forms.
This all came as Iowa broke state records for number of absentee ballots requested. As of October 19th, over 800,000 Iowans had requested absentee ballots, beating the previous record set in 2016. Over 500,000 of those ballots have been returned. It’s not clear if invalid prepopulated forms are included in that number. Linn County, which had sent out prepopulated forms, contacted voters who received them and resent blank forms to voters in early September, before the absentee voting period even began. In addition to county auditors resending blank forms, Pate’s office also sent blank absentee ballot request forms to all registered Iowans, so, fortunately, most voters who would like to vote absentee have been given the form to do so. Despite the availability of blank forms, Linn County auditor Joel Miller said that 14,000 voters in Linn County who returned the original form still have not returned the corrected version. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which also filed lawsuits regarding Pate’s directive back in July, has also expressed concern over potential confusion caused by the back and forth surrounding the forms, noting that all the changes have an increased impact on college students and people who speak English as their second language.
On top of voter confusion, there are some unanswered questions. Voters in Iowa who request an absentee ballot but decide to vote in-person are required to bring their ballot with them and surrender it at the polls in order to cast a regular ballot; otherwise they must vote a provisional ballot. Have lists been updated to make sure that anyone who requested an absentee ballot with an invalid form can vote a regular ballot? And what should county auditors do with prepopulated forms received after October 24th that were postmarked on or before that deadline—will those voters get a chance to correct their form?
With the absentee ballot request deadline having passed, hopefully these issues won’t lead to disenfranchisement, and voters who requested absentee ballots with prepopulated forms will either have successfully requested a new absentee ballot with a blank form or will be allowed to vote a regular ballot in-person. Early in-person voting has already started in Iowa, so voters who failed to re-request an absentee ballot have time between now and Election Day to cast their ballot.