One day after Gov. Reynolds signs new voting restrictions into law, a lawsuit is filed to overturn them

A sign sits outside of the State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville, a polling place during the Iowa primary election, June 2, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

On Monday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that restricts early voting, voting by mail and voting on Election Day, and makes it easier to remove people from voting rolls and harder for third-party candidates to get on the ballot for statewide and federal races. The bill criminalizes possible errors made by local election officials, making them punishable by large fines and up to five years in prison.

On Tuesday, a lawsuit challenging the bill’s changes to election law was filed in Polk County District Court.

The lawsuit was filed by Democracy Docket on behalf of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa, and asks the court to invalidate provisions of the new law restricting voting as violations of the Iowa Constitution. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, in their official capacities, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

LULAC is the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization. It’s also the largest. Nationwide, LULAC has over 150,000 members and its Iowa chapter has more than 600 members.

In a written statement on Monday, Reynolds said that changes to election law in SF 413 were needed to “promote more transparency and accountability, giving Iowans even greater confidence to cast their ballot.”

Notably, Reynolds did not claim the changes were needed to address any existing problems with how Iowans vote. In fact, asked last month if there are any problems with fraud or irregularities with Iowa elections, the governor said, “I think we do it well in Iowa, I’m proud of our system.”

None of the Republican lawmakers who spoke in favor of the bill claimed that voter fraud was happening in Iowa, although some repeated lies about the 2020 election told by former President Trump and cited debunked allegations of widespread voter fraud in states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia. State and federal courts have already rejected those allegations as baseless.

SF 413 moved through the legislature at unusual speed. There were only eight days between its introduction and its final passage in the Iowa Senate and House. The bill only received support from Republicans; all the Democrats in both chambers opposed it.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the fact that no one is saying this bill was needed to address actual problems in Iowa, but instead claim that it will ensure “election integrity” by reassuring voters that the legislature is addressing the baseless election fraud charges made by Donald Trump and his most ardent supporters.

“If the concept of ‘election integrity’ encompasses secure elections in which all voters have fair opportunities to participate so that the results accurately reflect the will of Iowa’s electorate, then the Voter Suppression Bill directly hinders that goal,” the lawsuit states. (Emphasis in the original.)

According to the filing, “these unnecessary voting restrictions independently and collectively impose an undue burden on the fundamental right to vote and violate multiple provisions of the Iowa Constitution.”

LULAC is seeking to have the court strike down six parts of the wide-ranging 37-page bill, that the lawsuit labels “the Voter Suppression Bill.”

• Reduces the number of days when voters can register before elections;

• Significantly reduces the number of days when voters can request absentee ballots;

• Shortens the absentee voting period by more than one week;

• Reduces the number of days when county auditors can send out absentee ballots;

• Reduces the number of days for most voters to return their absentee ballots and applies ballot-receipt deadlines unequally;

• Inhibits or eliminates the ability of election officials to establish convenient opportunities for absentee voting at satellite voting stations, county auditors’ offices, and drop boxes;

• Criminalizes the act of assisting voters with returning their absentee ballots and prevents voters from using a person of their choice to return their ballots.

“Each provision of the Voter Suppression Bill challenged in this lawsuit burdens Iowa voters, making the voting process more difficult and making it less likely that every vote will be counted,” LULAC argues in the lawsuit. “Taken as a whole, the Bill targets and restricts virtually every aspect of the voting process — registering to vote, requesting and submitting absentee ballots, and even in-person voting on election day.”

“These burdens are not justified by any legitimate, much less compelling, state interests.”

SF 413 prohibits county auditors from mailing out absentee ballot request forms unless a voter specifically requests one. The mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms to all active voters is credited with driving the record turnout in the November 2020 election.

The period for requesting an absentee ballot would be reduced from 120 days before an election to 79 days, and early voting would be cut from 29 days to 20 days. The bill also reduces the number of hours the polls are open on Election Day, requiring polling places to close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.

Iowa’s absentee ballot request form for the June 2020 primary election. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The bill strips away much of the local control of elections. County auditors will no longer be able to select satellite locations for early voting. Instead, satellite locations can only be established in response to a petition signed by 100 voters, and the petition would have to specify the location where the satellite will be placed. A county auditor’s office will also be limited to one drop box for returning absentee ballots in person, and specifies where that box must be located.

Prior to Reynolds signing SF 413 into law on Monday, people could ask friends or neighbors to deliver their sealed absentee ballots to a county auditor’s office for them. Now only a member of a voter’s immediate family, someone living as part of the voter’s household or specified election officials will be able to return someone else’s absentee ballot. Anyone else doing so could face criminal charges.

Democrats offered an amendment before the Senate voted on the bill that would have allowed a voter to designate an individual outside their immediate family and household to return or mail a ballot envelope for them, but Republicans rejected it.

According to the lawsuit, this “Voter Assistance Ban violates Article I, Section 20 [of the Iowa Constitution] on its face because it prohibits group action to effect political change.”

Under the new changes to election law, absentee ballots returned by mail must be received by the county auditor’s office by the new closing time for polling places on Election Day. Prior to the change, ballot were presumed to be valid if they were postmarked by Election Day and received in the auditor’s office by the Monday following the election.

According to the filing, if the new standard had been applied in November’s election, approximately 6,500 otherwise valid ballots would have been discarded.

As the lawsuit notes, SF 413 has two exceptions to this new deadline. People covered by the Secretary of State’s “Safe at Home” program, which supports survivors “of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, stalking, or violent crimes” and use the mailing services it provides will have their ballots counted if they arrive in the auditor’s office on the day after the election. And the change won’t apply at all to any Iowans voting by mail from Canada, because of an international agreement on voting by mail.

The two exceptions create “an arbitrary and disparate mechanism for determining whether Iowans’ votes will be counted in violation of Article I, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution,” according to the lawsuit.

All of the bill’s provisions challenged by LULAC “impose burdens on voters generally, with particularly severe impacts on the right to vote for minority voters, elderly voters, rural voters, young voters, poor voters, new voters, and voters with disabilities,” the filing states. “These voters are more likely to vote absentee or lack flexible schedules that allow them to vote on election day.”

“These burdens are not justified by correspondingly weighty interests.”

Individuals participate in early, in-person absentee voting at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City on Oct. 26, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Although the lawsuit does not state it, most of those categories of voters who face the most severe impact from the changes are considered likely Democratic voters.

SF 413 went beyond just restricting voting, and also placed new restrictions on other parts of the election process.

Prior to this bill, active voters would not have their status changed to inactive unless they miss two consecutive general elections, and their local auditor has mailed them an address verification card, which was subsequently returned to the auditor’s office as undeliverable. Now a voter’s status will be switched to inactive if the voter skips one general election.

The bill also makes it harder for candidates for federal and statewide office to get on the ballot, by increasing — in some cases doubling or quadrupling — the number of signatures needed on a nominating petition and the number of eligible voters who participate in a local convention that selects candidates.

The increase in requirements for getting on the ballot does not apply to members of the Iowa Senate and House.

To the extent these other changes have been discussed, their supporters insist they are needed for reasons of election integrity. Absent from SF 413 was anything election experts recognize as actually increasing election integrity, such as post-election audits.

The lawsuit filed by Democracy Docket on behalf of LULAC does not address these aspects of the bill, only those directly affecting voters.

Democracy Docket was founded in March 2020 by Marc Elias as an extension of his work as an attorney specializing in election law. A partner at Seattle-based law firm of Perkins Cole, Elias coordinated the legal response to the myriad of post-election lawsuits brought by Trump and his supporters in 2020.

In addition to the Iowa lawsuit, Democracy Docket is also suing the Georgia Secretary of State on behalf of Fair Fight Action, which promotes voters’ rights in Georgia and Texas.