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Iowa Supreme Court sides with GOP over absentee ballot request forms

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Iowa City, Iowa — Iowa's highest court upheld a state directive Wednesday that was used to invalidate tens of thousands of absentee ballot requests mailed to voters pre-filled with their personal information.

The Iowa Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of President Donald Trump's campaign and Republican groups as Trump held an evening rally in Des Moines.

The court rejected a Democratic challenge that argued the directive issued by Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate was unconstitutional.

Pate instructed county elections commissioners in July that all absentee ballot request forms they mailed to voters must be blank in order to ensure uniformity statewide.

Auditors in three counties defied Pate's guidance and mailed forms to thousands of voters with their names, addresses, dates of birth and voter pin numbers already filled in. Voters just had to review, sign and return the forms, which the three auditors said were intended to make voting by mail as easy as possible during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Trump campaign and GOP groups filed lawsuits to invalidate those forms, saying auditors overstepped their authority. Two judges in three separate cases agreed, invalidating about 70,000 applications that had been returned by voters and issuing injunctions blocking the counties from processing any others. Affected individuals had to fill out new blank applications to request absentee ballots or vote another way.

Democratic groups argued in a separate lawsuit that Pate did not have the authority to issue the directive, and a Polk County judge agreed.

The Iowa Supreme Court put that decision on hold last week after Republicans and Pate appealed and threw it out Wednesday. Justices agreed with the GOP that the lower court ruling was a "collateral attack" on the other court injunctions that invalidated the pre-filled forms, and would create more confusion if allowed to stand.

They rejected Democrats' claims that Pate's directive undermined the constitutional right to vote, noting that anyone affected can take advantage of Iowa's expansive early voting and Election Day opportunities.

"In this proceeding, we are not persuaded that the obligation to provide a few items of personal information on an absentee ballot application is unconstitutional, thereby forcing us to rewrite Iowa's election laws less than a month before the election," the court wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Pate praised the ruling, saying the court "reaffirmed a commitment to election integrity."

"None of this voter confusion would have happened if not for the irresponsible and unlawful actions of the auditors in Johnson, Linn and Woodbury counties," he said.

Separately, the court voted 5-2 to grant a Democratic request to review the constitutionality of a new Republican-backed law that blocks county auditors from using voter registration databases to fill in any missing information on absentee ballot request forms. Unlike prior elections, the law requires auditors to contact those individuals by phone, email and mail to fill in missing information themselves.

Democrats and a Latino civil rights organization argue the law could leave thousands of requesters who cannot be reached in time without access to absentee ballots. Republicans say the law is a safeguard against fraud.

The court ordered the parties to file final briefs by Friday afternoon, signaling a decision could come before the Oct. 24 deadline to request a ballot by mail.

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