DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a new state law regulating absentee ballot request forms does not amount to an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.
Wednesday’s decision in League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Majority Forward v. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate upheld an earlier ruling by a state district court judge, which was brought to the Supreme Court on an expedited request for interlocutory appeal granted Oct. 14.
LULAC and Majority Forward sued Pate in his capacity as the state’s chief elections officer in July. The plaintiffs argued that an amendment passed by the Iowa Legislature in June placed an undue burden on the constitutional right to vote.
The amendment barred county election officials from using a statewide voter-ID database to fill in missing information on voters’ absentee ballot request forms. Instead, the law requires that they attempt to contact the voter by phone, email or regular mail to obtain the information.
The plaintiffs argued that if county election officials are unable to reach the voter to obtain the missing information, they cannot send out the requested absentee ballot. That amounts to an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote by those who vote absentee, they argued, and violates the right to equal protection and procedural due process under the Iowa Constitution.
The Iowa Supreme Court, in an unsigned opinion for a four-member majority, disagreed, saying “we are not persuaded the statute imposes a significant burden on absentee voters. It is not a direct burden on voting itself.” The per curiam opinion was joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald and Matthew McDermott.
Three justices dissented, saying the plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional challenge to the new law, especially in light of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.
“To read the majority opinion, one might forget we’re even in the midst of a historic global pandemic,” Justice Dana Oxley wrote in the dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Brent Appel.
The majority in the per curiam decision said that election laws “naturally impose some burdens on voters,” and “requiring a voter wishing to vote absentee to provide a few items of personal information on an absentee ballot application is not much different than other burdens normally involved with voting, like the burden of going to a polling place or the burden of filling out a ballot correctly.”
Nor was the court persuaded by the argument that state legislators did not show evidence of fraud when enacting the statute on absentee ballot requests.
“The plaintiffs argue that because the state has provided no prior examples of fraud in absentee voting, the state’s argument that [the statute] serves to prevent fraud carries no weight,” the court said. “That the statute was not passed in response to evidence of actual fraud is a factor to consider, but it has little significance when, as here, the statute’s burdens are so minimal.”
Moreover, the court said it was not willing to alter election rules so close to an election.
Pate praised the ruling in a statement released Wednesday night:
“We have an unprecedented amount of absentee ballot requests this general election cycle and Iowans deserve to know their vote is secure,” Pate said in the statement. “The overwhelming majority of Iowans have repeatedly said they support Voter ID, and this case was about having Voter ID for absentee ballots. It’s legal, constitutional, and fair. I thank the Iowa Supreme Court once again for reaffirming Iowa’s commitment to election integrity.”
An attorney in Iowa representing the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.
Donald J. Trump for President Inc., the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Republican Party of Iowa were intervenors in the underlying lawsuit in support of the state’s position.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the League of Women Voters of Iowa filed an amicus curiae brief in the appeal in support of the plaintiffs.