IOWA CITY, Iowa — A judge blocked Iowa's secretary of state Monday from enforcing an order that barred counties from sending absentee ballot applications to voters with their personal information already filled in.
Judge Robert Hanson sided with Democratic Party groups, who contended that Secretary of State Paul Pate exceeded his authority when he told counties that absentee ballot request forms must be blank when mailed to voters.
Hanson ordered Pate to halt enforcement of his directive, which the judge said appeared designed to limit access to absentee voting. Local elections officials said they were studying the ruling to determine the impact, including whether they could take steps to mail ballots to thousands of voters whose requests were previously invalidated based on Pate's directive.
Pate said Monday the ruling “adds further confusion" for those voters and said they should still send in new blank forms to ensure their votes are counted.
“This ruling is in direct conflict with the law and previous court rulings regarding Voter ID,” he said.
The ruling came the same day that early in-person voting began in Iowa and that counties began mailing hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots to requesters statewide.
A law passed in June by the Republican-controlled Legislature blocks county officials from using their databases to fill in any missing information on the forms, as they have done in the past. Instead, they must contact voters by email, phone and mail to get them to fill in the gaps — a lengthy process that is expected to leave many requesters with incomplete forms and therefore no access to absentee ballots.
In July, Pate issued an emergency directive telling county officials that any absentee ballot request forms mailed to voters must be blank to ensure uniformity statewide.
But elections commissioners in Linn, Johnson and Woodbury counties defied the directive, worried about the impact of the new law and citing their own authority as elected officials. They sent forms to registered voters containing their names, dates of birth, addresses and voter identification numbers already filled in, saying they wanted to make voting by mail easy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tens of thousands of the requests were quickly signed and returned by voters.
President Trump's reelection campaign and Republican Party groups filed lawsuits against the three counties to invalidate the pre-filled forms. Judges quickly ruled in favour of Trump in all three cases, saying the counties violated Pate's directive that they must be blank.
Under injunctions issued in those cases, voters must fill out new blank forms in order to qualify for absentee ballots and counties cannot process any pre-filled forms that are returned.
The Iowa Democratic Party filed a lawsuit arguing that Pate's directive exceeded his authority, was not enforceable and violated the home rule powers of local officials.
In his ruling Monday, Hanson said that he could not dissolve the injunctions that are blocking the counties from processing pre-filled applications. However, he said that the counties could ask courts to lift those injunctions themselves.
Hanson said that he was baffled by Pate's directive, saying it would “clearly work counter" to the public's interest in making absentee voting as easy as possible. He said Pate promoted absentee voting during the June primary but then did an “about-face" despite no evidence of fraud or any other problems.
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said that 14,000 people in his county sent in pre-filled forms that were invalidated and have not since returned new forms. He said his county would “wait and see” pending additional legal proceedings before determining whether to mail ballots to those individuals.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said he was also studying the ruling.
Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press