Judge orders Linn County to void 50,000 absentee ballot request forms

The four drop boxes around Linn County are placed under active video cameras and are emptied five days a week by two people, one Republican and one Democrat. Aug. 26, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

A district court judge has ordered Linn County Auditor Joel Miller to nullify about 50,000 absentee ballot request forms, siding with Republican groups that alleged Miller overstepped his authority by sending out request forms with pre-filled voter information.

The Trump campaign, Republican Party of Iowa and two national Republican campaign committees filed three separate lawsuits against three county auditors, including Miller, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert and Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill. All three county auditors are Democrats.

The three auditors have been sending out request forms with pre-filled voter information, an action the Republican groups deemed as “going rogue.” The lawsuits allege the auditors overstepped their authority and are undermining the state’s election security.

The temporary injunction issued by Judge Ian Thornhill on Thursday came just hours after the hearing was held earlier that same day in Linn County District Court.

Judge Ian Thornhill wrote in his ruling that, in addition to establishing that they are likely to succeed when their lawsuit comes to trail, the plaintiffs — the Republican groups — “have demonstrated that they will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not entered.” The reasons for this, Thornhill said, are that not every county in Iowa can afford to send out pre-filled request forms like Miller did.

Thornhill acknowledged the additional work that will be required of Miller and his staff to correct the ballot request forms following the ruling but said Miller knew the risk he was taking based on his words and actions.

“It is true that significant remedial measures will have to be undertaken by Defendant and his staff to correct the ABRs that were mailed in contradiction to the directive,” Thornhill wrote. “However, as the Court already has found, Defendant’s words and actions show he was aware of the risk he was taking, and the remedial measures are a direct consequence of the risk knowingly taken by Defendant.”

The ruling does not mean the 50,000 individuals who submitted a pre-filled request form will lose their opportunity to vote in November’s general election. These individuals — and Linn County voters who have not requested an absentee ballot yet — can fill out a blank request form or vote in-person.

Miller’s office will mail a new absentee ballot request form and return envelope to impacted voters in mid-September. This is in addition to the Secretary of State’s office sending absentee request forms to all voters in the next few weeks. The form is also available online.

Even if voters submit multiple requests, only one ballot will be mailed. The Auditor’s Office will begin mailing ballots on Monday, Oct. 5. Voters have until 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24 to submit their request forms.

Absentee ballots can be returned by mail but must be postmarked on or before Monday, Nov. 2 to be counted. There are also drop boxes around Linn County as an alternative to mailing absentee ballots and request forms, but there has been controversy over whether or not the drop boxes are legal.

The Secretary of State’s office is saying Iowa law does not allow county auditors to use drop boxes for absentee ballots because they are not part of the auditor’s office. The Linn County Board of Supervisors approved a statement on Wednesday that acknowledges the election drop boxes as “county-provided accessories of the Linn County Auditor’s Office.”

“It’s equivalent to a post office mailbox,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said during Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s an extension of his office. I think we’ve always viewed it that way. It’s just a different form to receive information. … I can’t believe it would be disputed.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Paul Pate, told Iowa Public Radio later on Wednesday that drop boxes “must be secured to the building where the county auditor’s office is located” and that the office will provide additional information to local officials across the state.

Linn County’s four drop boxes are around Linn County and not attached to the auditor’s office.

• Linn County Public Service Center, 935 2nd St. SW, Cedar Rapids
• Marion Hy-Vee, 3600 Business Highway 151, Marion
• Edgewood Hy-Vee, 5050 Edgewood Rd NE, Cedar Rapids
• Johnson Avenue Hy-Vee, 1843 Johnson Ave NW, Cedar Rapids

Little Village emailed Hall on Thursday for clarification on where this leaves the county’s four drop boxes since they are not attached to the auditor’s office and what this means for votes that have already been cast in these drop boxes, but has not yet received a reply.

There will also be in-person early voting available, as well as voting at regular polling places on Election Day.

In-person early voting will begin on Oct. 5 at Lindale Mall and at 823 3rd St SW, which is across from the Public Service Center. Exact times will be announced next week.

Election Day polling will be limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the derecho. The polling locations will be announced with the next few days, according to a news release. Voters will receive a postcard with their Election Day polling location in early October.

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