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Democrats Launch Legal Challenge Against Iowa Secretary Of State's Directive Banning Pre-Filled Ballot Requests

Joyce Russell
IPR File
The Iowa Democratic Party and two other groups are challenging the secretary of state's absentee ballot request directive in court.

After judges ordered two counties to invalidate thousands of absentee ballot request forms pre-filled with voters’ personal information, the Iowa Democratic Party and two other groups filed a lawsuit Monday in an attempt to ensure that the forms will be considered valid.

Last week, judges in Linn and Woodbury counties ordered election officials there to invalidate a total of about 64,000 pre-filled forms that voters had already submitted.

That was after President Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and other GOP groups sued the Linn, Johnson and Woodbury county auditors, arguing that they violated the Iowa secretary of state’s emergency directive ordering counties to only send blank forms.

The latest lawsuit from the IDP, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claims the secretary of state’s emergency directive is unconstitutional, and that the secretary doesn’t have the authority to ban county auditors from sending pre-filled ballot request forms.

“We’re here to defend the rights of voters to not be disenfranchised by partisan actors at the hands of the secretary of state, who is essentially doing their bidding by depriving these voters of an opportunity to have their applications counted,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic voting rights attorney.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said in a statement that if the Democrats’ lawsuit succeeds, it will prevent him from carrying out his plan to mail blank absentee ballot request forms to all active registered voters in the state.

“The Democratic Party has already confused and potentially disenfranchised voters, and wasted taxpayer dollars in Linn, Woodbury and Johnson counties,” Pate said. “Now they’re doubling down by suing over a lawful emergency directive that the bipartisan Iowa Legislative Council unanimously voted for, including their party’s House and Senate leaders.”

The emergency directive approved by the Legislative Council included a provision for sending ballot request forms to all voters, and directed auditors to only send blank forms. Democrats on the council attempted to remove the part about blank forms, but everyone on the Republican-led council ultimately voted to approve the directive. The directive came after the Linn and Johnson county auditors announced their intent to send pre-filled forms.

The three lawsuits from Republican groups seeking to invalidate ballot requests are against two counties (Linn and Johnson) in which Democrats hold a voter registration advantage, and one county in which registered Republicans slightly outnumber registered Democrats (Woodbury).

This was the fifth lawsuit filed in Iowa in recent weeks by political parties or groups affiliated with political parties regarding absentee ballot request procedures.

What does this mean for voters in Linn, Woodbury and Johnson counties?

Under current court orders, the pre-filled ballot request forms in Linn and Woodbury counties are not valid. A hearing has not yet been held in the Johnson County case.

Voters in Linn and Woodbury counties who returned a pre-filled absentee ballot request form can expect to receive a letter from their county auditor that includes a new form.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said he is advising affected voters in his county to wait to receive that letter and a new ballot request application from his office in a few weeks. Miller said he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling in Linn County.

The secretary of state also has a mass mailing of blank ballot request forms planned in the coming weeks, other organizations have sent the forms to voters, and the forms are available online. Voters who submit multiple ballot requests will only receive one ballot.

Voters who filled in their own personal information on a blank ballot request form are not affected by these court cases.

The deadline for requesting a ballot is Oct. 24. County auditors start mailing ballots to voters Oct. 5. Voting in person will also be an option.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter