Supreme Court hears arguments in Finkenauer ballot case

Democrat’s U.S. Senate campaign hangs in the balance over petition signatures

By: - April 13, 2022 4:37 pm

Abby Finkenauer attended an April 13, 2022 Iowa Supreme Court hearing to decide whether she qualified to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. (Pool photo by Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

Abby Finkenauer’s campaign made a final plea Wednesday to appear on the Democratic primary ballot, arguing in front of the Iowa Supreme Court that three undated or incorrectly dated signatures on her nomination petition should be eligible under Iowa law.

“We are confident that the Iowa Supreme Court will follow the letter of the law and the spirit of our democratic process, and both Iowa law and the principles of democracy are on our side,” Finkenauer said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Finkenauer, a former U.S. representative from Dubuque, is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Over the course of an 80-minute hearing, lawyers for the Finkenauer campaign and the State Objection Panel sparred with Alan Ostergren, attorney for the two Republicans who objected to Finkenauer’s candidacy. Finkenauer and her husband, political strategist Daniel Wasta, held hands in the front row of the courtroom.

Abby Finkenauer and her husband, Daniel Wasta, attended an Iowa Supreme Court hearing to determine whether Finkenauer may appear on the ballot in the June primary. (Pool photo by Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

Finkenauer’s case comes down to three signatures on her petition: one in Allamakee County and two in Cedar County. The signatures are either undated or have an incorrect date written next to them. 

The Polk County District Court deemed those signatures ineligible, knocking Finkenauer below a threshold necessary to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. 

Gary Dickey, lawyer for the Finkenauer campaign, and Sam Langholz, assistant attorney general, appealed the decision. They argued state law does not explicitly require the State Objection Panel to strike a signature simply for being undated.

“Ultimately, if it’s close, it’s appropriate for this court to err on the side of… the interpretation that allows the voters to have the opportunity to vote for candidates,” Langholz said.

Ostergen said state law does require the date alongside every signature, no exceptions. He again pointed to the fact that candidates are advised to collect far more signatures than required in anticipation that some will be stricken for not fully complying with the law.

“Ordinarily these cases don’t reach this court, because ordinarily candidates file more signatures than you need to… You don’t come in right at the line,” Ostergren said. “Inevitably, some signatures are not going to count.”

The Supreme Court justices peppered lawyers with questions about the case, asking whether the date was necessary at all – “All 3,500 people that signed didn’t need to put a date on, is that your argument?” – and whether candidates should be rejected for other “shalls” in the law, including whether the petitions were fastened together or submitted neatly.

The court is expected to rule on the case by the end of the week. Finkenauer is on a tight timeline, as the Iowa secretary of state must begin sending overseas and military ballots by April 23. 

Two other candidates for U.S. Senate have qualified for the Democratic primary ballot:  Mike Franken, a retired Navy admiral from Sioux Center, and Glenn Hurst, a family physician from Minden. The winner of the June 7 primary will face the winner of the Republican primary between incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley and state Sen. Jim Carlin.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an editor’s error that omitted a GOP primary candidate.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.