IA-Gov: Road ends for Ron Corbett

Ron Corbett ended his Republican campaign for governor this morning after a Polk County District Court rejected his effort to be added to the GOP primary ballot.

A state election panel ruled 2-1 last week that Corbett fell just eight signatures short of the minimum required to qualify as a candidate for governor. He appealed the decision, seeking to have 43 signatures crossed off on his petitions added to his total, along with a few signatures that had been rejected because the voter lived in the wrong county. (All signatures on each page of Iowa candidates’ petitions must come from residents of a single county.)

Judge David May heard Corbett’s case on April 3 and issued his ruling this morning. He determined that “When words are stricken through–or, in other words, crossed out–it means that the words are deleted.” For example, in proposed legislation, strike-throughs are used to indicate which words will be removed from Iowa Code.

Corbett’s attorneys had argued that excluding him from the ballot would deprive voters of a choice, frustrating the will of thousands who wanted him to be on the ballot. But the judge determined that courts must follow laws that the people’s representatives have enacted.

The former Cedar Rapids mayor said last week he would accept a judge’s ruling and was looking for “clarity on this issue” because the only lawyer on the state election panel (Attorney General Tom Miller) supported including him on the ballot.

Corbett told reporters this morning, “Although I’m a little disappointed in the ruling, I accept the ruling” and will not appeal. He repeated that he will not run for governor as an independent: “I’m a Republican, and I wanted to run on the Republican ticket. So although I’m not a happy Republican today, I’m still a Republican.” He will support Governor Kim Reynolds. Even though he is “a little disappointed in the establishment, some of the tactics that they’ve used over the last ten months,” Corbett said he and Reynolds “share a great passion for the state of Iowa. She’s the most conservative candidate left in the race.”

He will return his unspent campaign funds to donors on a pro-rata basis, as he said former gubernatorial candidate Tyler Olson did after leaving the Democratic field in 2014. Corbett raised $844,637.84 during 2017 and had $578,897.79 cash on hand as of December 31. Since then, he has probably spent hundreds of thousands more on television commercials and other expenses.

As for his future plans, Corbett said, “My goal is to keep my think tank Engage Iowa going, but if that’s not possible,” he will look for a private-sector job. Corbett told me last June that while running for governor he would discontinue raising money for Engage Iowa, which does not disclose its donors. Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press in January that as a candidate, Corbett continued to receive a $150,000 annual salary plus $35,000 in benefits from the think tank.

Corbett, 57, is one of three board members of the group. The others are Gordon Epping, who is its treasurer, and John Smith, the influential owner of Cedar Rapids trucking company CRST International, where Corbett used to work as an executive.

Epping said the group “basically suspended” its operations last June but decided to continue to pay Corbett. “It’s our right to do that,” he said. […]

The top donor to Corbett’s campaign is Dyan Smith, the wife of Engage Iowa’s unpaid vice president John Smith, with a $100,000 donation, according to a disclosure report filed Friday [January 19].

I’ll be surprised if key supporters don’t continue to bankroll Corbett’s activities with the think tank.

During today’s press conference, Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson asked the question on many people’s minds. My transcript of that exchange:

Henderson: The other thing that some of your supporters here [at the statehouse] have mentioned is that after running multiple campaigns for the [Iowa] House and two campaigns for mayor in Cedar Rapids, they’re mystified as to why sort of a basic campaign tenet of this petition, signature collection tripped you up. You have previously said that you could have collected twice as many signatures, and you would still have been challenged. But why didn’t you collect twice as many signatures?

Corbett: Well, campaigns work on a lot of different issues. It isn’t just the petition drive. You also are trying to raise money. You are trying to have meet and greets, you’re scheduling media interviews. There’s a lot of aspects to the campaign. As people know, we didn’t have the staff that some of the campaigns do when they raise millions of dollars.

So it’s something that, I guess, Kay, will haunt me for the balance of my life, why we came up eight short, but that’s it. We came up eight short. As I’ve told people, I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus, or kick people to the curb. It is what it is, and that’s what, you know, I have to accept.

Several Congressional or gubernatorial candidates managed to collect thousands of valid signatures this year with far less funding than Corbett’s campaign. For what he was paying his staff, someone should have made sure they were on track to vastly exceed the minimum requirements for appearing on the ballot. If Republican officials were blocking Corbett from putting his petitions out at GOP events, the campaign could have hired people to collect signatures at other venues.

Corbett has alleged, most recently after the April 3 court hearing, that the Reynolds campaign or “dark money organizations” involving Nick Ryan worked with The Iowa Republican publisher Craig Robinson to challenge his nominating papers. Robinson has denied anyone from the governor’s campaign was involved in his objection.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Paul Pate, who along with State Auditor Mary Mosiman upheld the challenge to Corbett’s nominating petitions, released this statement on April 5.

DES MOINES – Polk County District Court Judge David May has issued a ruling regarding gubernatorial candidate Ron Corbett’s appeal to last week’s decision by the State Objection Panel to reject his nomination petitions.

Judge May’s decision states: “By striking through – or crossing off – the signatures at issue, Mr. Corbett’s campaign deleted those signatures from his nomination papers. The Panel was correct, therefore, in refusing to count those signatures in Mr. Corbett’s favor.” Mr. Corbett’s petition has been dismissed.

“I want to thank Judge David May for issuing his ruling in a timely manner and upholding the Objection Panel’s decision. My office is instructing county auditors to proceed in preparing all the ballots for the June 5 primary election,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said. “My advice to all candidates in the future, as we recommend in the Candidate’s Guide, is to collect significantly more petition signatures than is required, make sure all your paperwork is filled out correctly, and submit your petitions early in the filing process.”

The complete judge’s ruling is available at this link.

From the final two paragraphs of that decision:

It should be emphasized that the standard employed here is objective. Striking a signature deletes the signature. This is true regardless of the motives behind the striking. Therefore, the affidavit of Mr. [Cory] Crowley [Corbett’s campaign manager], in which he states his reasons for striking the signatures, is not relevant to the Court’s analysis.

Mr. Corbett argues that the will of certain voters will be foiled if Mr. Corbett’s name does not appear on the primary ballot. Yet democracy requires courts to follow statutes that have been lawfully enacted by the people’s elected representatives. Iowa Code section 43.20 is one of those statutes. It required Mr. Corbett to file 4,005 valid signatures. Mr. Corbett only filed 3,997 valid signatures. Therefore, Mr. Corbett did not substantially comply with Iowa Code section 43.20. As a result, Mr. Corbett’s petition should be, and hereby is, DISMISSED. Costs are assessed against Mr. Corbett.

SECOND UPDATE: Gary Dickey, an attorney with extensive experience related to Iowa election law, commented on Twitter on April 5,

This ruling is profoundly wrong on multiple levels. First, there is a presumption of correctness for nomination petitions. Second, the statute sets out what disqualifies a signature.

Too bad it won’t be appealed. It sets a bad precedent.

Asked for further details on flaws with the court’s decision, Dickey provided these comments to Bleeding Heartland.

The case presented a question of statutory construction. The primary purpose in that endeavor is to determine what the legislature intended. To do that you first look at the plain text of the statutes. Nothing in the text of chapter 43 indicates that the legislature intended for a signature that has a line through it should not be counted toward the minimum requirement.

Several provisions would, when read together, would suggest otherwise.

43.24 Objections to nomination petitions or certi cates of nomination.
1. Written objections required. Nomination petitions or certificates of nomination led under this chapter which are apparently in conformity with the law are valid unless objection is made in writing.

First, section 43.24 suggests a presumption of validity to nomination petition, which the ruling fails to acknowledge.

43.14 Form of nomination papers.

* * *
2. Signatures on a petition page shall be counted only if the information required in
subsection 1 is written or printed at the top of the page. Nomination papers on behalf of candidates for seats in the general assembly need only designate the number of the senatorial or representative district, as appropriate, and not the county or counties, in which the candidate and the petitioners reside. A signature line shall not be counted if the line lacks the signature of the eligible elector and the signer’s address and city. A signature line shall not be counted if the signer’s address is obviously outside the boundaries of the district.
3. The person examining the petition shall mark any deficiencies on the petition and affidavit. Signed nomination petitions and the signed and notarized affidavit of candidacy shall not be altered to correct deficiencies noted during examination. If the nomination petition lacks a sufficient number of acceptable signatures, the nomination petition shall be rejected and shall be returned to the candidate.

Second, section 43.14(2) specifically identifies criteria to disregard a signature. The negative corollary is that a signature that meets the criteria must be counted—even if there is a line through it.

Third, section 43.14(3) states that the Secretary of State is to identify deficiencies and return petitions that lack the required signatures. The ruling does not indicate that Corbett’s petition was returned because it lacked acceptable signatures or that the signatures with lines through them constituted a deficiency.

43.14 Form of nomination papers.
1. Nomination papers shall include a petition and an affidavit of candidacy. All nomination petitions shall be eight and one-half by eleven inches in size and in substantially the form prescribed by the state commissioner of elections.

Fourth, section 43.14 indicates that nomination papers need only substantially comply with the Secretary of State’s forms. It’s hard to see how a signature with a line through it—that is still legible—fails to substantially comply.

Most importantly, the right to seek public office is a hallmark of our participatory democracy. For this reason, all doubts should be resolved in favor of ballot access. The judge’s decision lost sight of this core principle.

THIRD UPDATE: Corbett spoke at an Iowa House public hearing on April 9, advocating on behalf of Engage Iowa for passage of a Republican tax cut bill. Looks like his key donors are willing to continue to employ him in that capacity.

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  • Signatures

    Many Independents and Democrats would have signed Corbett petitions if we had been asked. I appreciate seeing O. Kay Henderson’s good question and the answer.

  • Signatures

    First, I agree with the analysis by Gary Dickey. It is a far better reading of the statute than that of Judge May. The Secretary of State guidelines indicate that crossed out names on a petition will not be counted, ut the statute ought to control
    Second, I think we need to consider the point of the petitions. It’s too ensure some level of support but should not be a means to keep a person from facing a contested primary. In the case of Corbett, democrary isn’t better served by keeping him off the ballot. He was unlikely to win, but Republicans should at least have had a choice. The same goes for Ginny Caligiuiri. The Theresa Greenfield situation is a little different because Democrats have three other choices, but the system in place for challenging petitions seems, to me wrong, in several ways. I would suggest that the “X” number of signatures from “X” counties be dropped entirely, and that if a candidate submitted petitions by the deadline, that after examination by the Secretary of State, the candidate be given a window to correct errors (either due to disqualified signatures or due to failing to have enough).
    The current system allows opponents to knock someone off the ballot and deny voters any choice. Whether or not a candidate gets on the ballot can depend on the whether someone challenges. Perhaps someone should challenge every nomination in 2020 so that all candidates are reviewed in the same manner.