Judge throws out 50,000 absentee ballot requests in Linn County

Trump campaign objected to forms being pre-filled out with voters' personal information.

Posted: Aug 27, 2020 4:46 PM
Updated: Aug 27, 2020 6:38 PM

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — A judge ordered an Iowa county Thursday to invalidate 50,000 requests for absentee ballots, agreeing with President Donald Trump's campaign that its elections commissioner overstepped his authority by pre-filling them with voters' personal information.

Judge Ian Thornhill issued a temporary injunction ordering Linn County Auditor Joel Miller to notify voters in writing that the forms should not have been pre-filled with their information and cannot be processed. Instead, they'll have to either fill out new requests for absentee ballots or vote on Election Day.

The ruling marks an early victory for Trump's challenges to absentee voting procedures in three counties in Iowa, which is expected to be competitive in his race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

At issue was Miller’s decision to send absentee ballot request forms to 140,000 voters in July that were already filled with their personal information, including names, dates of birth and, most significantly, voter identification numbers.

Miller, a Democrat, has said his goal was to make it as easy as possible to vote absentee during the coronavirus pandemic, which is raging across the state.

Voters had to review, sign and return the forms to request ballots that will be mailed beginning Oct. 5. About 50,000 requests have been returned in the Democratic-leaning county, which is Iowa's second largest and is recovering from a derecho that devastated the region Aug. 10.

Thornhill ruled that Miller's mailing violated a “clear directive” from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who told county officials in July that absentee ballot request forms mailed to voters must be blank in order to ensure uniformity.

Absentee voting, in which voters send their ballots by mail or drop them off at county offices, has become popular during the coronavirus pandemic as a way to avoid the risk of crowded polling places. It led to record turnout during Iowa's primary in June.

But weeks later, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a new law to make such voting harder. It blocked auditors from using their databases to fill in voters' four-digit voting identification numbers, which few know and are routinely left blank on the forms.

Instead, the law requires auditors to contact voters by email or mail to have them correct mistakes themselves. Supporters argued that requiring voters to fill out their forms was a step to make absentee ballots more secure.

Miller and elections commissioners in Johnson and Woodbury counties said contacting voters who leave the information blank would have been too burdensome and potentially disenfranchised people, so they mailed forms with that information already filled in. They contended that the law did not block them from doing so.

Trump's campaign and state and national Republican Party groups filed lawsuits against the three counties, seeking to invalidate all forms returned in response to the mailings. They warned that any ballots cast in response to the mailings could be challenged later.

Thornhill's ruling, issued after he heard arguments Thursday, is the first so far. Another hearing is set for Friday in Woodbury County, where 14,000 of the absentee ballot requests have been returned. A hearing in the Democratic stronghold of Johnson County, where thousands more have been returned, is planned for next week.

Thornhill, appointed by Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in 2009, ruled that the Trump campaign and Republican groups had legal standing to bring the case. He found that they demonstrated a likelihood of being harmed, noting that not all Iowa counties have the money to send out pre-filled absentee ballot requests.

He found that Trump and the GOP would likely prevail on the merits, saying Miller's decision to populate the forms sent to voters went against Pate's directive and the intent of the new law.

Thornhill acknowledged that extraordinary remedial measures will have to be taken under his order but that Miller's “words and actions show he was aware of the risk he was taking.” He said voters will not lose their right to vote and still have time to acquire absentee ballots in another manner.

The secretary of state has alleged that the mailing violated a law intended to protect personal information stored in government and corporate databases, and asked prosecutors to investigate.

It argues that Miller had no legitimate purpose to access voters’ identification numbers and share them with a vendor that processed the mailing. Attorney general’s office spokesman Lynn Hicks said the office hasn’t decided whether to open an investigation.

Assistant Linn County attorney Elena Wolford argued that the state's directive was invalid and not binding on Miller, who has broad authority to administer county elections.

She called the mailing an attempt to expand voting access during the pandemic and said Republicans had not shown any injury, saying their argument that it could encourage voter fraud was hypothetical.

She warned that an injunction would hurt voters who are expecting to receive absentee ballots and taxpayers who would be forced to pay for additional notifications to be sent.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 758252

Reported Deaths: 8560
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1517551909
Ramsey62763976
Dakota56337523
Anoka53221514
Washington33236329
Stearns28036252
St. Louis23286353
Scott21359159
Wright20944170
Olmsted17894118
Sherburne15291114
Carver1342954
Clay1011798
Rice9886131
Blue Earth953059
Crow Wing9298105
Kandiyohi822796
Chisago820862
Otter Tail7868104
Benton7393109
Beltrami637177
Mower635340
Douglas618089
Goodhue608584
Winona605253
Itasca602380
McLeod583468
Steele574525
Isanti560073
Morrison546065
Becker521062
Polk503477
Freeborn482642
Nobles477952
Lyon447556
Carlton440966
Nicollet426451
Pine421130
Cass415942
Mille Lacs406765
Brown400947
Todd391836
Le Sueur380431
Meeker351552
Waseca323730
Martin318534
Wabasha28655
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Dodge26939
Roseau260325
Fillmore238212
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Houston229117
Renville225149
Faribault215730
Pennington213727
Sibley205112
Cottonwood194027
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Aitkin179242
Watonwan169311
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Swift132819
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Murray131510
Stevens122811
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Lac qui Parle95724
Mahnomen87412
Norman8519
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Grant7689
Lincoln7575
Kittson59922
Red Lake5789
Unassigned541124
Traverse5035
Lake of the Woods4574
Cook2430

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 467281

Reported Deaths: 6685
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk73698716
Linn28680379
Scott24441271
Black Hawk20130355
Woodbury18854242
Johnson17800100
Dubuque15577228
Pottawattamie14073197
Dallas13894107
Story1275148
Warren763496
Webster6876111
Cerro Gordo6816107
Clinton6814100
Des Moines657893
Marshall635484
Muscatine6294113
Wapello5807136
Jasper571478
Lee560787
Sioux560276
Marion499791
Buena Vista489745
Plymouth459187
Henry378647
Jones365160
Washington362255
Bremer353867
Benton352056
Boone344837
Carroll341753
Crawford337345
Mahaska313656
Dickinson297651
Clay274631
Buchanan274239
Jackson270445
Kossuth269373
Hardin266448
Tama261476
Fayette253848
Delaware253444
Cedar246326
Page244827
Wright240945
Winneshiek230837
Hamilton228553
Floyd216744
Harrison215277
Madison214325
Clayton210058
Poweshiek206840
Iowa204229
Butler203237
Jefferson197340
Mills197227
Allamakee192952
Cherokee191943
Lyon190641
Cass190557
Winnebago185432
Hancock184739
Calhoun184115
Appanoose175950
Shelby174239
Louisa169651
Grundy167937
Emmet163842
Franklin163328
Humboldt161826
Mitchell161843
Union159437
Chickasaw156418
Sac156323
Guthrie154034
Palo Alto140831
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Keokuk137534
Monroe131534
Howard125422
Ida116641
Davis113825
Greene113712
Lucas112224
Pocahontas109323
Monona107436
Worth10678
Adair103634
Osceola91117
Fremont83711
Van Buren82721
Decatur81212
Taylor78612
Wayne72024
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Adams4984
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