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Judge Upholds Iowa Law That Slows Processing Of Absentee Ballot Requests

Absentee ballot request forms
Michael Leland
IPR file
Absentee ballot request forms

A new Iowa law that slows the processing of some absentee ballot request forms will continue to be enforced ahead of the 2020 general election, after a Johnson County judge denied a request from a Latino civil rights organization and a Democratic-aligned nonprofit to temporarily block its enforcement.

Republican lawmakers voted in June to prohibit county election officials from using the voter registration system to fill in incomplete or incorrect information on absentee ballot request forms, as they have done for years.

The law now requires officials to contact voters by mail, phone or email to obtain that information. The bipartisan organization representing Iowa’s county auditors said it slows the processing of some ballot requests and makes it take longer for some Iowans to receive their ballots as more people are voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Majority Forward, a nonprofit aligned with Democratic groups, argued this law unconstitutionally violates Iowans’ voting rights.

In a ruling dated Friday, Johnson County District Court Judge Lars Anderson wrote he denied their request for a temporary injunction because the law is not likely to be found unconstitutional after a future trial.

“Properly identifying absentee ballot requests and requiring a voter to provide identification information fits with the interest of the state in maintaining the integrity of the election process,” Anderson wrote.

He noted that previous court cases have determined absentee ballots are not a fundamental right, even though voting is.

“It is also clear, from the parties involved and the fact that HF 2643 was enacted on a party-line vote, that this matter is heavily ingrained with politics…That does not impact the court’s review,” Anderson wrote. “A law is a law, subject to the same standard of review by the court, regardless of the political makeup of the legislators who supported the law or the parties lining up for or against in legal challenges after the law passes.”

LULAC Iowa Political Director Joe Enriquez Henry called the decision "extremely unfortunate" and said it was based on politics.

"The right to vote is part of our Iowa Constitution, and the right to vote by mail ballot without obstruction or undue burden should have been acknowledged by the judge," Henry said in a statement.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, was named as the defendant in the lawsuit. President Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of Iowa, and other GOP groups were permitted to join as additional defendants.

In a statement, Pate said Iowa has seen an unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests this year.

“This is about having voter ID for absentee ballots,” Pate said. “It’s legal, constitutional, and fair. I thank the courts for once again reaffirming a commitment to election integrity.”

Republicans have said this new law will help protect against voter fraud, though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Iowa.

Democrats have said it could disenfranchise some voters as Election Day nears with record-breaking numbers of absentee ballot requests amid concerns about postal service delays.

“The requirement that auditors engage in this pointless back and forth burdens everyone—the auditors, the postal service and the voters,” Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said during a court hearing last week.

This court ruling is not necessarily the final word on the law. The lawsuit may continue to play out in Iowa’s court system well after Election Day.

This new law is also why the county auditors of Linn, Johnson and Woodbury counties said they decided to provide voters with ballot request forms pre-filled with voters’ personal information and voter ID number. The Trump campaign, the RNC, and other GOP groups sued those three county auditors, and judges ultimately asked them to invalidate about 80,000 ballot request forms that Linn, Johnson and Woodbury county voters had already submitted.

What does this mean for Iowa voters?

Iowa voters are not required to change how they vote as a result of this court ruling. It maintains the same policy that’s been in place for months.

Iowans who wish to vote by mail should continue to carefully fill out all required information on their absentee ballot request form. Here are some tips for how to do that.

Watch your mail, email and phone for follow-up communication from your county auditor. If your county auditor reaches out to you about issues with your absentee ballot request form, respond to them as soon as possible to avoid potential delays in receiving a ballot.

Election officials recommend requesting an absentee ballot weeks before the Oct. 24 deadline.

County auditors will start mailing ballots to voters on Oct. 5.

In-person early voting also begins Oct. 5, and Iowans may vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter