In a Victory for Trump, Iowa Judge Orders Thousands of Absentee Ballot Requests to Be Voided

President Donald Trump departs carrying a walking stick given to him by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., after a signing ceremony for H.R. 1957 – “The Great American Outdoors Act,” in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — On the day he accepted the Republican nomination for a second term, President Donald Trump won a legal skirmish in Iowa over the legality of how absentee ballot request forms were handled by a local election official.

An Iowa trial judge issued a temporary injunction Thursday ordering the county auditor in Iowa’s second largest city to notify tens of thousands registered voters who received absentee ballot request forms from the county that they must apply for new ballot request forms.

Thursday’s ruling was the first victory for the re-election campaign of President Trump, who, along with congressional Republican committees and the Republican Party of Iowa sued three Iowa county auditors, saying absentee ballot request forms sent to voters in those counties violated state law and a directive of Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. 

The secretary of state is Iowa’s chief elections official. County auditors in the 99 Iowa counties manage elections at the local level.

The Trump campaign and Republican Party officials filed similar suits against election officials in Johnson and Woodbury counties. Hearings in those suits have not yet been held.

The issue is the legality of the Linn County auditor’s move to mail absentee ballot request forms to 140,000 registered voters in the county with each voter’s identification number filled in on the form. 

The Iowa Legislature passed a bill earlier this summer requiring county election officials to contact voters by phone or email if the voters omit the required identification number on their forms — either the driver’s license number or a state-issued PIN number. More than 30,000 request forms had been returned to the county by July 31.

Secretary of State Pate had earlier issued a directive to county auditors that absentee ballot request forms sent out by their offices must be blank.

Nonetheless, three Iowa county auditors sent out forms to registered voters in their counties with voters’ personal identification information, including PIN numbers, already filled in on the form.

The Trump campaign and Republicans argued that if the ballot request forms ended up in the wrong hands, absentee ballots could be sent in by other persons. Those ballots could then be challenged in the November election, delaying the results. 

The Republicans also argued that other Iowa counties could not afford to send out the pre-completed absentee ballot forms, a potential disadvantage to the president’s and the Republicans’ campaigns in those counties.

District Judge Ian Thornhill heard arguments from the county and the Republican Party earlier Thursday, and later in the day issued an nine-page order that requires County Auditor Joel Miller to contact all voters who have already returned ballot request forms and tell them they must ignore the county’s pre-filled ballot request forms and send in forms with identification numbers provided by the voter.

“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,” Judge Thornhill wrote Thursday. 

“This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that emergency legislative authorization, through the Iowa Legislative Council, was required before the Secretary of State could prepopulate ‘blank’ ABRs with ‘the Election Date and Type.’”

The judge concluded that the plaintiffs “have a likelihood of showing that the voter himself or herself must complete the ABR form, and that county auditors cannot prepopulate the ABR form for voters.”

Thornhill also agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that they could be disadvantaged by the county’s action:

“Plaintiffs also have demonstrated that they will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not entered, since not every county can afford the prepopulated request forms utilized by defendant, and since different actions by different county auditors will require different actions by plaintiffs when it comes to things like voter registration, voter mobilization, and the overall integrity of the votes cast.”

In a statement posted on its website Thursday, the Linn County Auditor’s Office acknowledged the judge’s decision and said, “In accordance with the decision, the Linn County Auditor’s Office will be voiding each Linn County absentee request form which was prefilled with voter information.”

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller told Courthouse News in an email Thursday night that a decision would be made on whether to appeal the judge’s ruling as soon as Monday. The decision would be made jointly by him, the county attorney and the Linn County Board of Supervisors. 

Meanwhile, he said the county would begin mailing out blank absentee ballot request forms to roughly 45,000 Linn County voters who used the county’s request forms sent out earlier.

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