An Iowa judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit that is tied to concerns over the state’s actions on voter registration in the months before the 2020 election.
In July 2019, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat, filed a public-records request with Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican. Miller noted that in 2018 the state’s deputy commissioner of elections notified counties that plans were being made on how to spend $8 million updating Iowa’s voter registration system. More than $1 million of that funding was to be spent in the fiscal year that had just ended, Miller wrote.
“A full year has passed and we have no indication as to how that $1.05 million has been used,” Miller wrote. He asked for copies of all correspondence on the matter between Pate’s office, vendors and public officials.
After 10 days passed with no response from Pate’s office to the public-records request, Miller filed a complaint with the Iowa Voter Registration Commission, alleging Pate had “taken no action” to overhaul the system, and arguing that the system was vulnerable to hackers, and that a staffer in Pate’s office had informed him the formal process of seeking bids had not ever been initiated.
As part of that complaint, Miller noted that in August 2018, Pate announced plans to enhance cybersecurity with a $4.8 million federal grant through the Help America Vote Act. States utilizing grants of that type are required by law to establish an administrative complaint procedure, so that any complaints about election integrity can be addressed at a hearing.
Pate filed a motion asking the commission to dismiss Miller’s complaint, arguing Miller had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The commission heard arguments on Pate’s motion and ultimately decided on a 2-1 vote to dismiss Miller’s complaint without a hearing.
Miller appealed that decision to Iowa District Court, arguing that the commission, rather than permitting Miller to present testimony and evidence to support his complaint, simply accepted “the unsubstantiated factual assertions” offered by Pate.
In February, the commission, represented by the office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case and contending that there is no relief the court could grant to ensure the security of the 2020 election since that is now in the past.
Miller challenged that, arguing the case constitutes a matter of public importance and the alleged problems are likely to recur.
In a ruling last week, Polk County District Judge Scott Rosenberg stated that ordinarily, litigation related to elections becomes moot after the election passes, but both the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Iowa’s own administrative complaint procedures contemplate filing complaints and providing election-related remedies after an election is over.
“HAVA and the Iowa administrative procedures provide Miller with the right to pursue injunctive relief with respect to a past election,” Rosenberg ruled. “If the Court granted Miller’s petition and remanded to IVRC for a contested case hearing on the merits, IVRC would retain the ability to grant injunctive relief related to the 2020 election for violations of HAVA.”
When asked for comment, Kevin Hall, spokesman for Pate’s office, said, “The bipartisan Voter Registration Commission is the respondent in this case, not the Secretary of State’s Office.”
Last summer, county auditors were informed by the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office they could only send out blank forms. On July 17, before any of the pre-filled request forms were mailed out by the Linn, Johnson and Woodbury county auditors, the Iowa Legislative Council voted unanimously that all election officials use a blank form to ensure uniformity. Joel Miller’s office mailed out absentee-ballot request forms to voters using forms that included the voters’ names, addresses and personal identification numbers, angering Republicans.
The Republican National Committee claimed the forms were illegal and demanded Pate order the forms to be declared invalid.
Iowa judges later granted the RNC’s motion for a temporary injunction preventing auditors from from processing those request forms.