Democrats Sue Over Iowa Ban on Pre-Filled Absentee Ballot Forms

Absentee ballots in U.S. Postal Service sorting trays. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — National and state Democratic Party leaders on Monday joined the battle in Iowa over absentee ballot request forms that appeared to have been won by the Trump campaign and Republicans in two state court rulings last week.

The Democratic campaign committees in the U.S. Senate and House and the Iowa Democratic Party filed two petitions in Polk County District Court on Monday challenging the Iowa Secretary of State’s authority to issue an emergency directive in July that county election officials use absentee ballot request forms without the voters’ identification numbers already filled in.

Election officials in Linn, Johnson, and Woodbury counties nonetheless sent absentee ballot request forms to registered voters in their counties with the ID numbers provided. The Trump reelection campaign and Republican Party leaders sued all three counties, naming as defendants the county auditors, who are the local election officials. Those three are the only of Iowa’s 99 counties to send out such forms.

District judges ruled in favor of Trump and the Republicans last week in the Linn and Woodbury cases. The judges in both ordered the auditors to contact all voters who returned the invalid absentee ballot request forms and apply for new ones. A hearing is set in Johnson County for Sept. 9 in that case.

In the latest round of this battle, the Democrats argue Secretary of State Paul Pate’s order violates the Iowa Constitution, and that the secretary exceeded his power under state law.

Pate, a Republican, criticized the Democrats’ lawsuits in a statement released Monday afternoon.

“It is unfortunate that the Democratic Party is now opposed to a statewide mailing of absentee ballot request forms,” Pate said. “They apparently only want voters in Democrat-heavy counties to request ballots, using request forms pre-filled with voters’ personal information.”

He added, “Not only would this lawsuit prevent my office from mailing absentee ballot request forms statewide, it would also remove additional flexibility for Iowa’s military, overseas, and healthcare facility voters. The Democratic Party has already confused and potentially disenfranchised voters, and wasted taxpayer dollars in Linn, Woodbury and Johnson counties.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith said in a statement Monday that the petitions are aimed at eliminating partisan efforts to interfere with fair elections.

“Partisan politics have no place in free and fair elections, and today’s challenge will help ensure that no Iowan is forced to risk their health during a pandemic in order to cast their ballot,” Smith said. “Iowa Democrats will fight tooth and nail against every malicious effort by desperate Republican politicians to suppress our fundamental right to vote. We look forward to the court upholding the local authority of county auditors and rightfully validating the absentee ballot requests.”

The Democrats’ suits were filed by Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey of Dickey, Campbell & Sahag, and by Marc Elias and Christopher Bryant of Perkins Coie in Washington.

In their suit on the constitutional question, the Democrats say Pate’s directive harms their party.

“The secretary’s directive directly harms [the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] because it frustrates its mission and efforts to register voters and persuade and mobilize those voters to elect Democratic candidates in Iowa,” the petition states. “And to the extent that the secretary’s rule prevents voters from receiving absentee ballots during the Covid-19 pandemic, voters will be confused and disenfranchised, and [the] pool of eligible Iowa voters who can vote for Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress will necessarily be reduced.”

Iowa voters’ voter ID number is their driver’s license number. Those who do not have a driver’s license are issued an ID number by the state. If voters leave their ID number off ballot request forms, county election officials are able to look them up on a state election database, but the Iowa Legislature in June passed legislation requiring instead that county auditors contact each of those voters by phone or mail.

That legislation, however, does not specifically prohibit counties from sending registered voters absentee ballot request forms with their ID numbers already filled in, the Democrats say. And county auditors have in the past sent request forms to voters with their ID numbers included, without evidence of election fraud as a result, according to the complaint.

The Democrats argue that the rulings in the Linn and Woodbury County cases “created turmoil” in Iowa.

“Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and a state still recovering from a major windstorm on August 10, Linn and Woodbury County officials now have to attempt to contact all registered voters to inform them that they cannot use the preaddressed request forms already sent by the auditor,” the complaint states. “They also have to attempt to contact all registered voters who returned the preaddressed request forms to inform them they must disregard the confirmation postcard and submit a new absentee ballot request form.

As a result, the plaintiffs argue the secretary’s directive confuses voters who may have trouble obtaining and filing absentee ballots in November, and therefore violates their voting rights under the Iowa Constitution.

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