Deeply divided Supreme Court upholds new law on absentee ballot request forms

by Rox Laird | October 22, 2020

Two starkly different perspectives were articulated by members of the Iowa Supreme Court in majority and dissenting opinions on the constitutionality of a new state statute requiring county auditors to contact voters who omit personal identification information, including their voter ID numbers, from absentee ballot request forms.

In an unsigned per curiam decision handed down Wednesday in League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Majority Forward v. Secretary of State Paul Pate, a four-justice majority held that the new statute, House File 2643, should remain in effect for the 2020 election, finding that the statute would not impose a significant burden on voters.

Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald, and Matthew McDermott joined the majority decision.  A dissenting opinion written by Justice Dana Oxley, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Brent Appel said the majority ignored the significance of the Covid-19 pandemic in analyzing the impact of the statute on the current election.

The Court’s per curiam opinion upheld a Johnson County District Court ruling denying a request for temporary injunction that would have stayed enforcement of House File 2643 passed by the General Assembly in June. That statute prohibits county auditors from searching a statewide voter database for missing identification information (address, birthdate, and voter identification number) on applications for absentee ballots.

Instead, the law requires auditors to contact the voter by phone, email, or regular mail to obtain the missing information.  The law’s challengers asserted that requiring county auditors to contact voters threatens to delay the issuance of absentee ballots compared to past practice of allowing election officials to “fill in” required information without contacting the voter, in violation of the Iowa Constitution.

The Court’s per curiam opinion said the required process does not impose an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote:

“We believe that the resolution of this case is largely controlled by our decision last week in Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee v. Pate (DSCC v. Pate), ___ N.W.2d ___ (Iowa 2020) (per curiam). In that case, we upheld a state law requirement that an applicant must provide identification information (address, birthdate, and voter identification number) rather than having the identification information prefilled on forms mailed by county auditors. The state law requirement that the county auditor contact the applicant to obtain the identification information to correct the defective application is supported by the same rationale. The purpose of both requirements is to protect the integrity and security of the absentee ballot system by requiring the individual requesting an absentee ballot to provide personal identification information to verify his or her identity.”

A dissent by Justice Oxley took a far different view:

“After carefully reviewing the evidence in the record about the likelihood that thousands of Iowans will not receive their requested absentee ballot in time to vote because of the cumbersome new process put in place by the legislature during the heart of the pandemic, and balancing that burden against the defendant’s mere incantation of ‘integrity of the election system’ and ‘voter fraud,’ I conclude the plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional challenge to the newly enacted legislation sufficient to entitle them to the requested temporary injunction.”

The Court was sharply divided on the expected impact of the challenged statute on this election.  Early voting and absentee-voting-by-mail has been ongoing for weeks, but the deadline to request an absentee ballot is October 24.

The majority argued the challenged statute would have an insignificant impact as the vast majority of requests for absentee ballots during this election cycle have been fulfilled, based on data on the Secretary of State’s website showing that through Oct. 21, Iowa county auditors had received 842,459 ballot requests and mailed 829,375 ballots to voters.

“That means that only 1.55% of requested ballots have yet to be mailed,” the majority said. “And since it takes some time to process a ballot request anyway, we cannot say what portion of that 1.55% is attributable to missing information that would trigger the voter contact procedures of HF 2643, or simply a function of the normal processing turnaround time for ballot requests.”

The dissent disputed that conclusion, pointing to evidence in the record that nearly 30% of requests for absentee ballots arrive in the last four days before the deadline, and therefore had not yet been received by county auditors as of the date of the Court’s opinion.

“That county auditors might be keeping up for now really doesn’t prove much,” Oxley wrote. “It is like relying on a pail to shovel water out of a boat because it has worked so far, while watching as a tsunami wave approaches the bow. The majority’s position rests on the calm before the storm.”

For more background on this case, go to On Brief to read our Oct. 19 post and find links to documents filed with the Court.


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