Democrats challenge absentee voting order, seeking to salvage thousands of applications for mail-in ballots

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)

Democratic Party organizations are suing the Iowa secretary of state in an effort to salvage more than 200,000 absentee ballot request forms that two judges have now declared were improper.

The lawsuit claims Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate violated counties’ constitutional right to home rule when he sent out an emergency directive on July 17, specifying that no voter identification information could be pre-printed on absentee ballot request forms. The party organizations also petitioned the court for judicial review of the directive, saying Pate didn’t have the authority to issue it.

Auditors in three counties — Johnson, Linn and Woodbury — sent out forms with information such as voters’ names, addresses and personal identification numbers. At least 64,000 of the forms have been completed and returned by voters.

The Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Iowa claimed in lawsuits those forms were improper because they contained personal voter identification information. So far, judges have ruled in favor of the Republican claims in Linn and Woodbury counties.

“It is absolutely outrageous that the secretary of state’s position is that voters who have done everything right, who received an absentee ballot application with information helpful to their application pre-filled, should now face disenfranchisement in the middle of a pandemic and natural disaster,” said attorney Mark Elias of Perkins Coie, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The Iowa Democratic Party, along with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, filed suit Monday in Polk County District Court.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, in a statement on Monday afternoon, accused the Democratic Party of confusing voters and wasting taxpayer dollars.

“The Democratic Party has already confused and potentially disenfranchised voters, and wasted taxpayer dollars in Linn, Woodbury and Johnson counties. Now they’re doubling down by suing over a lawful emergency directive that the bipartisan Iowa Legislative Council unanimously voted for, including their party’s House and Senate leaders,” Pate’s statement said.

County auditors, not the Iowa Democratic Party, mailed the absentee ballot request forms in Linn, Woodbury and Johnson counties. The auditors of those counties, who are Democrats, were not plaintiffs in the Iowa Democratic Party’s lawsuit.

The Democratic lawsuit claims Pate’s directive “tramples upon” counties’ constitutional home rule authority, Elias said. The parties also claim Pate exceeded his authority to issue the directive, which was not promulgated as an administrative rule.

Pate said Friday on Iowa PBS that his office will also send out absentee ballot request forms “around Labor Day weekend” and that his office will work with the auditors in the affected counties to “make sure that it’s being communicated to those folks who have already sent in their request on the wrong form based on what the courts are saying so they’re successful in being able to vote.”

‘Stay tuned’ for challenge over dropbox limits

Elias hinted that a challenge also may be coming if Pate issues guidance limiting where counties can locate election drop boxes for collection of absentee ballot request forms and completed ballots.

Pate said Friday he was advising auditors that counties may only place the drop boxes on county property. Some auditors, including in Linn County, have placed drop boxes at other public locations, such supermarket parking lots.

“The ones in question were the ones that were spread out throughout a community and parking lots at grocery stores, places like that. There is where the attorney general was involved and stating that those do not meet the present standards of the law,” Pate said on “Iowa Press.”

Elias responded: “Don’t be fooled. That is just an anti-drop box position. … It is simply trying to make returning ballots harder so your ballots (won’t) count. Slowing the postal service, fewer ballots count. Limiting the postal service, fewer ballots count,” he said.

He added, “So would there be future legal action? I would stay tuned.”