UPDATES & ANALYSIS

10.15

Iowa Supreme Court reverses Polk County ruling on absentee ballot request forms

by Rox Laird | October 15, 2020

With an election just over two weeks away, the Iowa Supreme Court Thursday appeared to close the books on a flurry of litigation on the question of what information county election officials may or may not include on absentee ballot request forms.

In an unsigned opinion in Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Iowa Democratic Party v. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (20-1281), the Court reversed an Oct. 5 order by Polk County District Judge Robert Hanson that stayed enforcement of the Secretary of State’s Directive that “County Auditors shall distribute only” blank absentee ballot request forms and may not include pre-filled voter identification information.

The court’s unsigned, or per curiam, decision was joined by all justices. Justice Brent Appel filed a concurring opinion saying that while the issue was a “close case,” he agreed with the decision but wrote separately to amplify his analysis of the issues in the case.

The Democrats’ Polk County suit followed decisions by the District Courts in Linn and Woodbury Counties issuing temporary injunctions barring auditors in those counties from accepting absentee ballot request forms they had mailed out pre-filled with voter ID information. The Johnson County District Court subsequently issued a similar injunction.

The Supreme Court last month denied interlocutory appeals filed in the Linn and Woodbury County cases. [Go to On Brief to read our post on those appeals.]

The Court, in its Oct. 14 decision, said the three District Courts correctly enforced Pate’s directive:

“In the Johnson, Linn, and Woodbury County cases, the District Courts concluded that [state statutes] give the Secretary of State authority to prescribe a standard form for absentee ballot applications that requires the voter to fill in their own personal information and to override any plan by local election officials to use prepopulated forms,” the Court said. “We agree.” The Court cited Iowa Code § 53.2(4)(a)–(b), which “unmistakably requires the applicant to provide the required personal information,” rather than the county auditor.

The Court said while reasonable people may disagree about whether or not the best policy is that absentee request forms must be blank, the Court noted that Iowa election law allows outside parties to return completed absentee ballots. Thus, requiring the applicant to include personal identification information on the request form helps ensure that the ballot was in fact requested by the voter.

Nor was the Court persuaded by the argument that the process for filling out absentee ballot request forms places a burden on voters.

“All election laws involve some burdens.” the Court said. “There is the burden of filling out a ballot correctly. The burden of going to a polling place. The burden of requesting an absentee ballot correctly. In this proceeding, we are not persuaded that the obligation to provide a few items of personal information on an absentee ballot application is unconstitutional, thereby forcing us to rewrite Iowa’s election laws less than a month before the election.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee v. Pate 20-1281 Opinion
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee v. Pate 20-1281 Procedendo Order

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