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Iowa Supreme Court asked to put US Senate candidate back on primary ballot

Democrat Abby Finkenauer argues she should not be denied a spot on the ballot based on missing dates for three nominating petition signatures.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A leading Iowa Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and the state’s attorney general urged the Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday to reverse a decision that would deny her a spot on the June 7 primary ballot.

A state district judge ruled Democratic candidate Abby Finkenauer, a former congresswoman who hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Charles Grassley in the fall, failed to get the legally required number of signatures on her nominating petition for the primary ballot. Finkenauer and Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller, also a Democrat, filed an expedited appeal to the state high court.

Lawyers for Finkenauer and the attorney general say two state statutes setting out requirements for signatures on nominating petitions are in conflict: One requires that signers include a date while the other does not.

Miller, in a brief filed with the court, argued that the statute lacking the date requirement is controlling.

“If the Legislature had intended to prevent counting of such signatures, it could have easily added such a requirement,” the brief states. “And . . . despite making many additions, the Legislature hasn’t. This Court shouldn’t do what the Legislature has chosen not to.”

In response, Des Moines attorney Alan Ostergren, representing two Republicans who objected to the legality of Finkenauer’s nominating petition, argued in his brief that while one section of the state code does not require the date of a signature, Finkenauer “cannot point to any language in this code section to show that these are an exclusive list of reasons why a signature line cannot be counted.”

He added Finkenauer’s argument “would read the date-of-signature requirement out of the code. It would literally take something called a ‘requirement’ and make it optional.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Justice Christopher McDonald wondered how the eligibility of an elector based on a petition signer’s age can be determined without knowing the date it was signed, which would indicate the age of the signer on the date of the election in question.

Assistant Iowa Solicitor General Samuel Langholz agreed the State Objections Panel, which hears challenges to the validity of nominating petitions, would not be able to do that.

"The criteria for being an eligible elector are dependent on a status on a particular date. So, why would we not require a date to be part of the petition?” McDonald asked.

“That is a good reason for why [state law] does include that requirement,” Langholz said, adding that the State Objections Panel is not arguing that dates aren’t required. “There’s value to that requirement, even if the consequence of not complying isn’t disqualifying the signatures.”

Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey, representing Finkenauer, argued the two Republicans who challenged the validity of Finkenauer’s nominating petition lack standing to bring the case.

“What is their personal and legal interest in the judicial review? And how have they been injured, and not just a generalized grievance, but how have they personally been injured in a way that the general public has not?” Dickey said.

Justice Edward Mansfield said that “in any of these ballot access cases, the interest of the party challenging the other candidate is that they support a different candidate. Maybe they didn’t spell that out in the petition, but I think we can assume that, right?”

“Even if they had the remedy, which is to keep her off the ballot, how does that cure the problem that they are arguing, that it lacks a date? So the remedy has no match to the issue," Dickey replied.

Ostergren, arguing on behalf of the Republican objectors, said the relevant state law “gives standing to anyone who would have the right to vote in the general election."

Mansfield questioned if that is sufficient: “What is your clients’ injury in fact? How are they harmed?”

"Every voter has an interest in the orderly functioning of the election process, and the [Iowa Code] gives authority to any eligible elector to raise these objections," Ostergren said. "And I don’t know that I have any better answer than to say that the code allows them to do so.”

Finkenauer, a Dubuque native who served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives before being defeated in 2020, seeks to unseat Grassley, who has served seven terms in the Senate. Two other Democrats are running in the primary. Recent polling showed Finkenauer was clearly leading the primary race.

Finkenauer’s March 25 nominating petition to appear on the primary ballot was challenged by Kim Schmett and Leanne Pellett, two Republicans who argue the petition fell below the legally required minimum of 100 signatures in two Iowa counties.

The State Objections Panel – consisting of the Iowa attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state – voted 2-1, with the secretary of state dissenting, that while three signatures on Finkenauer’s petition lacked a required date, the petition was in “substantial compliance” with the law.

In response, Schmett and Pellett filed suit in state court, arguing the state statute setting the requirements for signatures on nominating petitions is clear that signers must include their home address, town and the date they signed the petition.

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