By Zee Huff

This is part I on coverage of Iowa’s absentee ballot application dispute; see part 2 here.

Imagine: You’re the auditor for Linn County, Iowa. It’s a warm summer morning. After a June primary which saw record turnout— and a surge in absentee voting — you’re trying to figure out how best to serve the citizens of your county. Drop boxes outside your office and the Public Services Building were a hit, with citizens voting up until 9 p.m. on Election Day. There are ways to help your constituents, and you’ll find them.

Your name is Joel Miller, and you’re about to have a hell of a summer.

The first obstacle? House File 2643, an appropriations bill that had been amended to include a controversial new requirement for county auditors. Instead of using information their office had on-hand to correct any issues on voters’ absentee ballot request (ABR) forms, the auditors now must contact voters directly — first by telephone and email, and then by mail. Miller and his office had been correcting small errors for years, as was the practice of auditors across the state. A bigger problem loomed, however: Iowa requires a Voter ID PIN for voters without Iowan forms of identification. Voters often don’t know what that number is, so they leave it blank or put the last four digits of their Social Security number.

It was in this context that Miller decided to send out over 140,000 prepopulated ABR forms to the registered voters of Linn County. These prepopulated forms included all relevant information about the voters, including the Voter ID PINs, and only required the voter’s signature before being returned. On July 11, Miller stated, in a letter to Molly Widen, legal counsel for Iowa Republican and Secretary of State Paul Pate, his belief that “in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who are privileged to administer the election process must do everything reasonably possible to assist voters’ participation in a safe manner.” An arguably noble cause, but one that openly defied a directive from Secretary Pate’s office.

Pate’s directive, issued July 17, marked his intention to mail ABR forms to registered voters statewide. The Secretary of State’s office had previously done this in the June primary, a move which likely led to the increased turnout. However, the Trump campaign, with support of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Iowa, contended that Pate’s directive required any forms sent out to be completely blank and that the prepopulated forms, among other perceived problems, could cause confusion among voters. While sending out multiple ABR forms is not uncommon — this year alone, the Secretary of State’s Office, some auditors, and both the state Republican and Democratic Parties have sent out ABR forms to voters — concerns over the security of our elections were, and are, paramount in the public’s mind.

Fueled by Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, the Republican Party stoked these flames in their complaint, contending that by ignoring the directive, Miller – the Linn County auditor – had overstepped his authority and broken an Iowa law forbidding government officials from partially completing documents. The law, they argued, is to ensure that the state is certain that the forms were submitted by the citizens in question and to prevent fraudulent behavior. In late August, District Judge Ian Thornhill agreed with the plaintiffs, saying that Miller “must notify voters that the forms are invalid and cannot be used to get an absentee ballot to vote.” This ruling nullified at least 45,000 forms submitted by voters in Linn County.

The ruling was seen with derision by various Democrats and their allies, who sued Pate, arguing that his directive itself was illegal on multiple claims, including equal protection under Iowa’s state constitution. For more on those lawsuits, and the future of Iowa’s elections, see Clara Ilkka’s post [here].

As of September 22, according to Miller, “18,363 citizens who requested an absentee ballot using [the] prefilled request form have [not] submitted a [second] request form.” With COVID-19 showing no signs of abating and confusion mounting, it is still unclear whether these voters will submit their ABR forms by the October 24 deadline.

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