© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa Judge Grants RNC, Trump Campaign Request To Invalidate Linn County's Pre-Filled Ballot Request Forms

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. Judge Judge Thornhill said Thursday he will rule soon on a request from President Donald Trump's reelection campaign to invalidate 50,000 requests for absentee ballots submitted by voters in Iowa's second-largest county.
Liz Martin/AP
Pool The Gazette
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.

A judge has ordered Linn County to invalidate tens of thousands of absentee ballot request forms that were pre-filled with voters’ information after the Republican National Committee, President Trump’s campaign, and other GOP groups sued the county auditor.

In a ruling issued Thursday just hours after a court hearing, District Court Judge Ian Thornhill agreed with the Republican groups that Linn County Auditor Joel Miller violated the Iowa secretary of state’s directive to only send blank ballot request forms.

Thornhill notes Iowa law does not state that the request form must be completed by the voter. But, he writes, “the fact that it is titled ‘Application for ballot,’ uses the phrase ‘apply’ for such a ballot, and requires the signature of the voter implies that the Iowa Legislature intended for the information to be included on an application for an absentee ballot to be provided by the voter himself or herself.”

Thornhill also points to a new law, the subject of a separate lawsuit, that bans county auditors from using state databases to correct mistakes or omissions by voters on ballot request forms. Instead, county officials must contact voters by phone, email or mail to get that information.

“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 wrote.

That new law is why Miller, a Democrat, said he chose to pre-populate the request forms. The Iowa State Association of County Auditors says the new law slows down the processing of absentee ballot requests.

At a hearing Thursday, Assistant Linn County Attorney Elena Wolford argued the secretary of state doesn’t have “blanket authority” over county auditors.

“The emergency directive [to send blank request forms] by the secretary of state is not a rule, and it’s not a statute,” Wolford said. “And it was not properly issued by the secretary of state.”

She also said the GOP groups didn’t prove that pre-filled absentee ballot request forms would cause them harm. And Wolford said the secretary of state already referred concerns about Miller’s actions to the Iowa attorney general’s office.

“This shouldn’t happen. This is going to hurt Linn County voters,” Wolford said. “This is nothing more than the plaintiff already getting a prescribed remedy and coming back for another pound of flesh.

But Thornhill concluded that the Iowa secretary of state’s directive to only distribute blank ballot request forms was “appropriate” and ordered Linn County to invalidate the ballot requests.

The Linn County auditor’s office confirmed in a news release that they would void all pre-filled absentee ballot request forms.

Miller said he sent pre-filled forms to more than 140,000 voters, and about 45,000 have been returned to his office. Those voters will now have to send in a second ballot request form if they still wish to vote by mail, or they may vote in person.

Miller plans to send new, blank ballot request forms to impacted voters in mid-September.

“County auditors have been instructed multiple times by my office to only provide voters with blank Official State of Iowa Absentee Ballot Request Forms,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. “The bipartisan Legislative Council unanimously gave them the same instructions. Auditor Miller chose to ignore those warnings.”

Democratic lawmakers objected to Pate’s order to only send blank request forms. That provision was ultimately included in a broader directive allowing Pate to send ballot request forms to all active registered voters, which lawmakers from both parties approved.

The directive came after Miller announced in early July that he would send pre-filled ballot request forms.

The Republican Party of Iowa is also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Another big victory in Linn County today,” RPI Chair Jeff Kaufmann said in a social media post. “A judge found that the rogue auditor broke the law, jeopardizing our fair elections. He will be forced to fix this mess.”

The Iowa Democratic Party condemned the ruling in a news release.

“While the Democratic Party explores legal avenues to overturn this ruling, what’s clear is that this partisan lawsuit is a malicious, cowardly effort by the Republican Party to disenfranchise voters and subvert the voice of Iowans in November,” IDP Chair Mark Smith said.

The county auditors of Johnson and Woodbury counties are facing nearly identical lawsuits from the RNC and Trump campaign. Those are still pending.

County auditors will start sending absentee ballots to voters on October 5.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter