Iowa Supreme Court Upholds GOP-Backed Law Blocking Officials From Amending Absentee Ballot Applications

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
October 22, 2020Updated: October 22, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court on Oct. 21 upheld a Republican-backed law that prevents county election auditors from amending errors or filling in missing information in absentee ballot applications on behalf of voters ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

In a 4–3 ruling just days before Iowa’s Oct. 24 deadline for absentee ballot applications, county election auditors will now be blocked from using the state’s voter registration database to fill in the blanks on voters’ applications, as they have done in prior elections. They will instead be required to send them back for applicants to fill in, or contact voters directly to obtain the required identification information.

“We are not persuaded the statute imposes a significant burden on absentee voters. It is not a direct burden on voting itself,” the four justices wrote in the ruling on Oct. 21, noting that roughly 13,000 out of more than 842,000 absentee ballot requests hadn’t been fulfilled as of Oct. 16.

The figure is “extremely low,” they argued, and “far lower than the rate predicted by the plaintiffs.”

The justices, who included Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald, and Matthew McDermott, agreed with Republicans that the law was a way to “protect the integrity and security of the absentee ballot system” by ensuring that voters verify their identities by providing the relevant information.

Dissenting justices said the ruling will “likely cause thousands of voters to not receive their ballot in time to use it” and that in-person voting will increase health risks during the pandemic.

Those affected would still be able to vote early at the auditor’s office and satellite locations or on Election Day.

The ruling marks another legal victory for Republicans and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in Iowa, where his race against Democrat Joe Biden and a key Senate contest are expected to be close.

Iowa is 1 of 16 swing states in the 2020 election, according to a tally maintained by Real Clear Politics. Early voting began Oct. 5 in the state.

One of the dissenting justices, Dana Oxley, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Brent Appel, wrote that thousands more absentee ballot requests could be submitted by the Oct. 24 deadline, and that those with incomplete information could go unfulfilled.

“To read the majority opinion, one might forget we’re even in the midst of a historic global pandemic,” Oxley wrote. “The burden on voters is this delay, which will likely cause thousands of voters to not receive their ballot in time to use it.”

“The majority’s position rests on the calm before the storm.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.