Judge invalidates absentee ballot applications in Johnson County lawsuit

An absentee ballot request form sent out before by the Iowa Secretary of State's Office before Iowa's June 2 primary election. (Photo by Iowa Secretary of State's Office)

The Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Iowa have won a third court ruling, this time in Johnson County, that may result in tens of thousands of absentee ballot applications declared invalid.

District Judge Ian Thornhill granted the RNC’s motion for a temporary injunction that prevents County Auditor Travis Weipert from processing absentee ballot request forms that were pre-printed with voters’ personal identification information.

The auditor is required to contact voters who sent in those forms and inform them they need to submit a new application on a “blank” form that complies with the Iowa Secretary of State’s directive. Similar rulings have already been issued in Linn and Woodbury counties, where auditors also sent absentee ballot applications that were partially filled out for voters. The secretary of state’s office has since sent blank forms to active registered voters statewide.

While the ruling applies only to a temporary hold on the ballots while the case proceeds, Thornhill’s ruling left little question about his view of the legality of absentee ballot request forms (ABRs) pre-printed with voter information:

“It is implausible to conclude that near total completion of an absentee ballot application by the auditor is authorized under Iowa law where the Legislature has specifically forbidden government officials from partially completing the same document,” Thornhill wrote. “This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that emergency legislative authorization, through the Iowa Legislative Council, was required before the Secretary of State could prepopulate “blank” ABRs with “the Election Date and Type.”

The Iowa Democratic Party and national Democratic organizations have filed suit separately to challenge the authority of the secretary of state and Legislative Council to direct how county auditors print ballot application forms.

However, Thornhill rejected similar arguments, finding that the secretary of state acted with authority of the Legislature, did not violate administrative rules and did not contradict any county ordinances that would be protected by home rule authority.

“The Court concludes that Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the question of whether the actions of the Secretary of State were specifically authorized by Iowa Code … and there is not a likelihood that § 47.1(2)(a) will be found unconstitutional,” Thornhill wrote.

The Republican Party of Iowa referred to auditors in the three counties as “rogue” in a statement Monday:

“This should effectively close the case on rogue county auditors trying to skirt Iowa’s widely-supported voter ID laws,” said Aaron Britt, RPI communications director. “Iowa Republicans will continue advocating for accessible and fair elections, and ensure the chaos and confusion created by rogue county auditors is put to an end. Iowans must be able to trust the validity and have confidence in our elections.”

Weipert and other county auditors filed statements in the Democratic Party lawsuit that predict “dire” consequences if county auditors are forced to invalidate tens of thousands of absentee ballot request forms.

“This will considerably slow our ability to timely provide these voters with their requested ballots,” Weipert wrote. “During the June primary election, Johnson County received more request forms than any other primary that I recall — about 92,000 applications were sent out, and 20,000 to 22,000 were returned. I had to employ 11 part-time staff members, in addition to my 22 full-time staff members, to process all of the request forms. Many of these had missing information — especially missing, inaccurate, or illegible absentee ID numbers.”

He said despite COVID-19 guidance from public health officials is to minimize the number of staff in his office, he may have to hire “dozens of full-time and part-time staff members” to stuff envelopes.