The RNC accidentally makes strong case against Iowa’s voter ID law

The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office expects that on election night Iowans will know who carried the state in the presidential contest.(Photo by iStock /Getty Images Plus)

It may be hard to believe, but the Republican National Committee has one of the most compelling arguments yet for why Iowa should dump its burdensome and unnecessary voter identification requirements for absentee voting.

That may seem especially outrageous since President Donald Trump last week mused via Twitter about delaying the general election because of unspecified and unsupported allegations that voting by mail would lead to “the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.”

Trump can’t do that. He doesn’t have the authority, as even his GOP pals have pointed out. But that doesn’t mean he and his allies aren’t attempting other ways to complicate the voting process. His campaign and the RNC are trying to intervene directly in Iowa’s election.

Making a case against voter ID wasn’t the RNC’s intention. It is pushing to make absentee voting more difficult in Iowa (even though Trump declares absentee voting is “good”). Nevertheless, the national Republican Party pointed out clearly and concisely that Iowa’s ID requirements create a barrier for voters.

The occasion for this illumination was the letter the RNC’s lawyer sent recently to the Iowa secretary of state. The letter complains about the auditors in Linn and Johnson counties sending out absentee ballot request forms with voter identification information pre-printed on the forms.

I wrote about this letter last week and Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland has done significant reporting on the topic. But it’s worth circling back to examine it in more detail. RNC Chief Counsel J. Justin Riemer claims the auditors are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution (emphasis added):

“Here, auditors in two counties are sending their citizens absentee ballot request forms with their names, addresses, birthdates, and voter identification numbers already populated based on government records. Thus, government officials are selectively revealing only to some voters exactly the information from the statewide voter registration database that election officials would deem legally sufficient to entitle them to receive an absentee ballot. Other voters, in contrast, are left to fill out the forms themselves, subjecting them to the possibility that their information will be declared incorrect or a “mismatch.” This system unfairly guarantees that only some voters will receive an absentee ballot simply by signing the request form, while others face the potential for rejection. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits government officials from according such disparate treatment to voters participating in the same election. Your office’s decision to distribute blank absentee ballot request forms to all voters throughout the state, in contrast, satisfies Equal Protection restrictions by placing all voters on a level playing field, according everyone an equal opportunity to apply for, receive and cast absentee ballots.”

Let’s review: The RNC says Iowa’s system “unfairly guarantees than only some voters will receive an absentee ballot simply by signing the request form, while others face the potential for rejection.”

The RNC is essentially arguing that all voters should face the potential for rejection.

It’s putting a finger on the rot at the core of Iowa’s absentee voter ID law: Voters are in jeopardy of not getting a ballot, not because they are ineligible to vote but because they merely affixed their legal signature to a legal document requesting a ballot to which they are legally entitled.

The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature has been systematically erecting barriers between Iowans and that legal right for the past several years. The law now requires completed absentee ballot request forms to include either a driver’s license/non-operator ID number or a four-digit personal identification number (PIN) supplied by the secretary of state. The state mailed out PIN numbers two years ago and many Iowans who didn’t throw that mailing away unopened have put these cards in a “safe” place never to be seen again.

GOP lawmakers apparently suspected that county auditors were helping out voters who filled out forms correctly but accidentally transposed a number or dropped a digit here or there. (As one auditor told me, if someone fills out eight digits of a nine-digit driver’s license number correctly, it defies logic to imagine that voter was engaged in identify theft as opposed to a case of misplaced bifocals.) GOP lawmakers wanted to put a stop to that neighborly helpfulness. So this year, they passed a law forbidding auditors from making tiny corrections from their own data without first contacting a voter by phone or email within 24 hours of receiving the request.

The main excuse for these laws has long been the potential for voter fraud. However, as Linn County Auditor Joel Miller pointed out, a person who wants to commit voter fraud using someone else’s absentee ballot request form that was sent through the mail has committed a half-dozen felonies before the completed ballot is even counted.

The people most likely to commit voter fraud using someone else’s absentee ballot is a family member, who would probably have access to the legal voter’s driver’s license or PIN anyway, Miller noted. They typically get caught when the actual voter shows up and casts a ballot.

Now some auditors want to avoid that useless, time-consuming and expensive mess of having to personally contact voters over obvious errors on their forms. Some are doing this by pre-printing PIN numbers on the forms. Miller has already sent out 140,000 forms with that ID information. In the RNC’s view, that gives Linn County voters a leg up over those in other counties because it’s less likely their form will be rejected over a typo.

And they’re right, it does. That’s why Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate should pre-print voter identification information on all absentee ballot request forms before they’re mailed to voters this year.  And Iowa lawmakers should come back next year and repeal those laws that put unfair barriers in front of voters.