UPDATES & ANALYSIS

10.19

Iowa Supreme Court to hear appeal on constitutionality of law on absentee ballot request forms

by Rox Laird | October 19, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court has agreed to consider an appeal in a case that could decide the constitutionality of recent legislation passed by the Iowa General Assembly that prevents county election officials from using a statewide voter database to fill in voter identification numbers missing from absentee ballot request forms.

The Oct. 14 order was signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen for the Court. Justices Christopher McDonald and Matthew McDermott dissented. The Court is likely to act quickly, as the deadline for requesting absentee ballots is Oct. 24.

The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Majority Forward sued Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, in his capacity as the state’s chief election official, in Johnson County District Court, arguing that House File 2643 passed by the Legislature in June puts an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.

Iowa has allowed some form of absentee voting since 1915, according to an amicus brief filed in the case. Since 1924, voting by mail had been allowed for voters physically present in their county but unable to vote due to illness or disability. Iowa law now allows any eligible voter to vote absentee for any reason.

Iowa voters must include on forms requesting an absentee ballot their driver’s license number, non-operator ID number, or state-issued voter identification number. Previously, if the voter seeking an absentee ballot left off the voter ID number from their request forms, auditors could check the State’s “I-Voters” database and add it to the form.

The new law, which became effective July 1, prohibits auditors from searching the database for missing ID numbers, and instead requires that they contact the voter by phone, email, or regular mail.

The plaintiffs argue that if county auditors are unable to reach the voter to obtain the missing information, they cannot process the request forms, and voters will not receive absentee ballots. This, the plaintiffs argue, places an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote by those who rely on the use of an absentee ballot to exercise that right, and violates the right to equal protection and procedural due process under the Iowa Constitution.

District Court Judge Lars Anderson on Sept. 25 denied the plaintiffs’ motion for temporary injunction that would have stayed enforcement of the legislative ban on using the State database to fill in missing voter IDs.

Judge Anderson wrote that the claims in this case, which are related to a request for an absentee ballot, “are likely to be found not to involve the right to vote,” and he concluded that the plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claims.

Secretary of State Pate resisted the interlocutory appeal, as did Donald J. Trump for President Inc., the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Republican Party of Iowa, intervenors in the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and League of Women Voters of Iowa filed an amicus curiae brief in the case in support of the plaintiffs.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court Friday by Iowa Attorney General Thomas J. Miller on behalf of Secretary Pate, the State argued that the District Court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order was not an abuse of discretion.

Nor, the State argued, does the challenged law violate the equal protection clause or procedural due process.

“Because the burden on the vast majority of voters is minimal and there is a rational relationship between the law’s requirements and the State’s legitimate interests, LULAC has not shown that it is likely to succeed on the merits of its challenge,” the brief said.

District Court Ruling
Order Granting Interlocutory Appeal
Appellee Intervenors Brief
Appellee Brief
Appellant Brief
ACLU Amicus Brief

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