Iowa Judge Strikes Down Absentee-Ballot Rules

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa secretary of state’s rules that restrict how election officials verify absentee ballots are illegal, a state judge ruled Thursday, saying the secretary – a Republican – incorrectly interpreted state law.

(AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano temporarily enjoined enforcement of the new rules last July, which was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court, and her 10-page ruling issued Wednesday and released publicly Thursday permanently blocked the new rules from being enforced.

The ruling prevents the state from implementing regulations regarding verifying a voter’s legitimacy if their absentee ballot lacks a voter-verification number

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate criticized the ruling and said he would appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

“Judge Romano’s decision puts the integrity and security of Iowa’s elections at risk, by making it easier to cheat,” Pate said in a statement Thursday. “The purpose of this rule is to ensure that county auditors obtain information missing from an absentee ballot request form from the source: the requesting voter.”

This administrative rules issue was originally part of a larger lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, and an Iowa State University student challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s law requiring voter ID and imposing new restrictions on absentee ballots.

The judge earlier severed the two issues, and the constitutional challenge on the voter ID issue is scheduled for trial in June.

LULAC applauded the decision.

“It allows auditors to use all the tools at their disposal, removing restrictions that were imposed by the voter ID law,” Joe Enriquez Henry, the group’s national vice president for the Midwest region, told Courthouse News on Thursday.

The legislation at issue, House File 516, was passed on a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled Legislature made a number of significant changes to the Hawkeye State’s voting laws, including a requirement that voters show a photo ID or an approved substitute ID at the polls, as well as the restrictions on absentee ballots and the elimination of straight-party voting.

According to the lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court, HF 516 “severely burdens and abridges Iowans’ fundamental right to vote.”

The lawsuit is supported by voting rights group Priorities USA Foundation. The plaintiffs are represented by lead attorney Gary Dickey of Dickey & Campbell in Des Moines. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is defending the state.

Thursday’s ruling focused on administrative rules drafted by Secretary of State Pate to interpret the legislation passed by Iowa lawmakers in 2017 requiring voters casting absentee ballots to include a voter verification number when returning their ballots.  If a voter fails to include the number, the legislation says that the election commissioner “shall, by the best means available,” obtain the necessary information.

Pate’s administrative rule interpreting “best means available” means “contacting the voter directly by mail, email, or telephone or in person” and explicitly says county auditors, who are the election commissioners in Iowa, “may not use the voter registration system to obtain the information,” a reference to voter information records maintained by state and local election officials.

Judge Romano ruled that exclusion is erroneous.

“Forbidding commissioners from using the voter registration system entirely is a direct contradiction of the term ‘best means available,’” Romano wrote. “It well may be that the best means available to a commissioner upon receipt of an absentee ballot that lacks the required information is utilization of the voter registration system. If accessing the voter registration system is the best means available to a commissioner, Iowa [law] requires the commissioner to use that system. Prohibiting commissioners from using a frequently used means to obtain the necessary information that they are required to obtain is in contradiction of the requirement that commissioners use the best means at their disposal to obtain that information.”

Iowa courts defer to state agencies’ interpretation of state law when an agency is given explicit authority by the Iowa Legislature to interpret legislation. The Legislature did not grant such interpretive authority to the secretary of state in this case, Romano wrote.

Even if the secretary had that authority, the judge wrote that his interpretation “fails to pass even this standard of deference.”

Iowa’s county auditors have never in the state’s history been prohibited from using the voter registration system to obtain necessary voter information, Romano wrote, and the secretary offered no explanation for prohibiting use of the voter registration system now.

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