Judge may void thousands more Iowa absentee ballot requests
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa judge who nullified 50,000 absentee ballot requests in Iowa’s second-largest county seems ready to void thousands more in a neighboring county at the urging of President Trump’s reelection campaign.
Judge Ian Thornhill heard arguments Wednesday in Johnson County, the state’s most Democratic-leaning, in a similar request for an injunction sought by Trump’s campaign and Republican Party groups. He said he would issue a ruling soon but raised several points that he did in his Linn County ruling last month that gave Trump a sweeping legal victory.
Trump’s campaign argues that county elections commissioners in Johnson, Linn and Woodbury acted improperly when they mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters with their personal information already filled in.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate had ordered counties to send those forms blank in order to ensure uniformity statewide.
Officials in the three counties say they pre-filled the forms to blunt the impact of a new Republican-backed law that blocks them from using their databases to fill in any missing information, including a voter pin number that few people know. They say they were trying to make it easier to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Voters had to review, sign and return the forms to request ballots that would be mailed Oct. 5.
Thornhill and Judge Patrick Tott have sided with the Trump campaign in the Linn and Woodbury county cases, voiding roughly 64,000 requests for absentee ballots that had been submitted. Affected voters either have to fill out a new blank form to request an absentee ballot or vote at the polls on Election Day.
About 15,000 of the pre-filled forms have been returned so far in Johnson County, and thousands more would be expected to arrive in the coming days.
Thornhill was not originally scheduled to hear the Trump lawsuit in Johnson County, and a different judge had set Wednesday’s hearing. But Thornhill said the chief judge of the judicial district that includes Linn and Johnson counties assigned him to hold Wednesday’s hearing because of his familiarity with the legal issues.
“There is nothing magical or bizarre that I showed up down here,” he said.
Thornhill pledged to keep an open mind in the Johnson County case. But he said later it’s “no surprise” given his earlier ruling that he believes the new state law blocks counties from sending the forms with voters’ information already populated.
Thornhill also suggested he believed it is better to fix the problems now, rather than risk the chance that actual ballots could be invalidated later on.
Assistant Johnson County attorney Susan Nehring argued that the new law does not specifically prohibit auditors from pre-filling the forms, and that County Auditor Travis Weipert acted within his authority when he approved the mailing.
“That was a reasonable way to proceed in order to be able to allow all voters to have an opportunity to vote safely and securely,” she said.