Reynolds tees up another voting rights lawsuit in Iowa

Governor Kim Reynolds has signed into law provisions that would make it harder for county auditors to process some absentee ballot request forms.

Democratic election lawyers have signaled plans to challenge the new restrictions, which copy an administrative rule struck down in court last year.

As Bleeding Heartland covered in detail here, Iowa Senate Republicans inserted a new division on voting into House File 2643, a lengthy budget bill, in the middle of the night on the last day of the legislature’s 2020 session.

That section, which Reynolds signed along with most of the bill on June 30, strikes out Iowa Code language instructing local election commissioners to use “the best means available” to “obtain the additional necessary information” a voter may have left off an absentee ballot request form.

Instead, county auditors needing to fill in missing fields would be required to “contact the applicant by telephone and electronic mail” within 24 hours “after the receipt of the absentee ballot request.” If the voter can’t be reached by those means, the auditor is to mail a letter seeking the missing data. Crucially for Republicans, “A commissioner shall not use the voter registration system to obtain additional necessary information.”

Many Democrats pointed out problems with the language during the House and Senate debates on the bill. Common errors on absentee ballot request forms include transposing digits on a street address or writing down the last four digits of a Social Security number where the form asks for a voter PIN. The identity of the voter is not in question in such cases, because the county auditor can see from the database that the rest of the information matches.

Nevertheless, under the new law, the auditor would not be able to use that database to correct the obvious problem.

The predictable outcome: delays in processing some absentee ballot requests, which could prevent some eligible voters from requesting or receiving a mailed ballot in time to participate. The barriers could particularly affect senior citizens or voters with a disability.

Compounding the absurdity, local election officials must use the database for other verification purposes under the voter ID law Republicans enacted in 2017.

I expect a court will issue an injunction preventing this part of House File 2643 from taking effect for the 2020 general election.

In January 2019, Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano invalidated an administrative rule Secretary of State Paul Pate had enacted, which imposed the same restrictions on county auditors. Her order held that it was “irrational, illogical, and wholly unjustifiable” to forbid auditors from using the voter database for that purpose. She further found the rule was “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion” and “clearly against reason and evidence.”

The state will presumably argue that having removed “best means available” from the Iowa Code section, lawmakers are well within their rights to limit whether county auditors can consult the database when processing an absentee ballot request.

But the state still needs to show some legitimate interest in the restriction, even if a court reviews the law using the lowest level of scrutiny (a “rational basis” standard). If a court subjects the challenged provision to heightened scrutiny, on the grounds that voting is a fundamental right, the state would need to show a compelling interest in saying county auditors must reach voters by phone, email, or snail mail instead of consulting the computer that’s right in front of them.

It reflects poorly on Republican lawmakers that they catered to State Senator Roby Smith’s strange obsession with making it harder to vote in Iowa. It also reflects poorly on Reynolds and her senior legal counsel Sam Langholz that the governor didn’t use her item veto power to block this attempted voter suppression and keep the state out of litigation.

P.S.–Many organizations, including labor unions, the League of Women Voters, and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, had lobbied the governor to item veto the voting section of House File 2643. However, Reynolds’ veto message nixed only two sections of the 51-page bill. One dealt with the Iowa Veterans Home budget and the other would have given the Iowa Economic Development Authority a new role in assisting broadband providers.

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