Judge removes Abby Finkenauer from Democratic primary ballot, after Republicans challenge three signatures on nominating petition

Abby Finkenauer highlights the “freedom not just to make a living, but to have a good life,” in her Senate campaign announcement video.

Late Sunday night, a Polk County judge ordered Abby Finkenauer’s name “not be included on the primary ballot for the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.” Judge Scott Beattie ruled that three people who signed Finkenauer’s nomination petition had not properly filled in the date when they added their signatures, and the lack of those three signatures disqualified Finkenauer.

“The Court takes no joy in this conclusion,” Beattie wrote in his ruling that was filed at 10:49 p.m. on Sunday night. “This Court should not be in the position to make a difference in an election, and Ms. Finkenauer and her supporters should have a chance to advance her candidacy. However, this Court’s job is to sit as a referee and apply the law without passion or prejudice. It is required to rule without consideration of the politics of the day. Here the Court has attempted to fulfill that role.”

In a written statement issued on Monday morning, the Finkenauer campaign called Beattie’s action an “Outrageous and Meritless Midnight Decision,” and accused him of doing “the bidding of Chuck Grassley and his allies in Washington.”

Beattie’s ruling came in a response to an appeal filed by two members of the Iowa Republican Party who were seeking a reversal of the March 29 decision by the State Objections Panel, which found Finkenauer met the qualifications required to appear on the June primary ballot.

Leanne Pellett, co-chair of the Cass County Republicans, and Kim Schmett, former chair of the Polk County Republicans, had filed a challenge with the State Objection Panel seeking to keep Finkenauer off the Democratic primary. The two Republicans were represented by attorney Alan Ostergren, who has previously represented the Iowa Republican Party and the Trump campaign in election-related cases.

The panel rules on challenges to candidates whose paperwork has been accepted as valid by the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. In 2018, a Republican Party activist filed a successful challenge that kept former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who was running against Gov. Kim Reynolds, off the primary ballot. It is made up of three state officials: the Attorney General, the Auditor of the State and the Secretary of State.

After reviewing the challenged signature, the panel voted two to one that Finkenauer had submitted enough signatures, but only by a very narrow margin. After the changes Iowa Republicans pushed through the legislature last year, a candidate for U.S. Senate must submit signatures from 2,500 Iowans who are eligible to vote, including at least 100 signatures in 19 different counties. Attorney General Tom Miller and Auditor Rob Sand, both Democrats, found Finkenauer met the 19-county threshold, accepting some signatures where the individual had not currently entered the date they signed on the grounds that the correct or missing date could be readily determined by the dates of other signatures on the same page.

Miller and Sand said that enough challenged signatures were in “substantial compliance” with requirements to reject the Republican challenge. Both pointed to the fact that the panel has used the substantial compliance standard since 1988.

Secretary of State Pate, a Republican, disagreed and voted to disqualify Finkenauer.

“It may sound trivial to some, and I agree, it sounds very sad that that’s what’s going to keep somebody off the ballot,” Pate said, about rejecting a candidate over a small number of incorrectly filed out dates. “But at the same time, you’re running for something as high as the U.S. Senate or governor or any other office you need to make sure you’re doing all the detail work before you get started.”

Pellett and Schmett filed an appeal on the argument that Miller and Sand should have recused themselves from the Finkenauer decision, because their lawyer, Ostergren, was involved in a challenge to Miller’s nominating petition and Ostergren has filed a lawsuit against Sand in a matter unrelated to elections. The judge rejected this argument. Where Pellett and Schmett succeeded was in their challenge to the panel’s approval of three signatures, one in Allamakee County and two in Cedar County.

The Allamakee signer wrote their zip code in the space for the date. One Cedar County signer wrote the date as “6-6” — the signatures above and below it are dated “2-6” — and the other signer mottled the date altogether. The panel had found that all three signatures met the substantial compliance standard.

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Judge Beattie acknowledged the panel had relied on the substantial compliance standard for 34 years, but said that because the legislature had never explicitly given the panel the authority to determine what substantial compliance is, the court “owes no deference to the Panel’s legal interpretations.” Beattie also acknowledged that in 2014, an Iowa District Court accepted the substantial compliance standard and called that decision “instructive,” but said “it is not binding on this Court.”

“The only logical interpretation of the statute [on nominating petitions], which gives it meaning, is that each signer must indicate the date they signed,” Beatie concluded. “It does not say that the date may be inferred or extrapolated from the context.”

The judge overturned the panel’s decision regarding the three signatures, reducing Finkenauer’s total of valid signatures in both counties to 99, meaning she no longer met the 100-signatures-from-19-counties requirement and cannot appear on the June ballot.

“This is a victory for the rule of law. Iowans expect candidates to follow state law and to follow the same rules as the hundreds of other candidates who successfully qualified to be on the ballot,” attorney Ostergren said in a statement on Monday morning.

Beattie’s decision could be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, but Pate said any decision in the case needs to be finalized by Friday, so the primary ballot can be printed in time to be sent to military and overseas voters.

The attorney general’s office, which represented the State Objection Panel in the challenge, filed a notice of appeal with the Iowa Supreme Court on Monday afternoon. Before that notice was filed, Finkenauer had already issued a statement saying she would appeal: “After careful review, I have decided to challenge this deeply partisan decision to [sic] the Iowa Supreme Court.”

Until 10:49 p.m. on Sunday night, Finkenauer was the undisputed frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. She had overwhelming leads over her two fellow Democrats, retired Adm. Mike Franken and Minden City Councilmember Glenn Hurst, in polling, fundraising and endorsements. Both Franken and Hurst qualified for the June ballot.

Neither Franken’s nor Hurst’s campaigns have made public statements on Finkenauer’s disqualification yet.