DES MOINES — Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court were asked Thursday to decide whether new identity verification requirements for voters casting absentee ballots are an unconstitutional infringement of their rights or a valid balance to prevent fraud and protect a valued democratic institution.
“The data from the June primary suggests that absentee voters are able to vote under this system,” attorney Thomas Ogden said in representing Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. “The system is working and does not suggest we’re going to have a big problem if it goes on … through the November election.”
With the Nov. 6 midterm election coming up. Ogden is asking the court to lift a district judge’s temporary injunction barring the state from implementing some provisions of Iowa’s new voter ID law.
Last month, Polk County District Judge Karen Romano issued the injunction ordering the absentee early voting period be reset from its current 29 days to its previous 40 days, and blocking certain ID requirements of the law. The more restrictive bill was passed by the GOP-led Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2017.
Arguing against the law’s restrictions, attorney Bruce Spiva told the seven justices there is no data available to back the state’s claim and many voters risk “likely harm” if the court sanctions state rules allowing untrained election officials to make signature-matching decisions on absentee ballot forms “simply by eyeballing” the handwriting.
“Ballots should not be discounted based on a standard-less and unreliable signature-matching system,” Spiva told the Supreme Court justices.
The lawsuit seeking to block portions of the measure before the November election was filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa. Iowa State University student Taylor Blair also was a plaintiff.
The group argued in the lawsuit that provisions of House File 516 impede Iowa’s voters by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on potential voters.
Justice Edward Mansfield expressed some concern over the arbitrary nature of the signature-verification system, but said the bigger issue facing the appellate panel “is that whatever is done with this injunction is going to control this coming general election. We’re making a decision today in effect for the 2018 general election. That’s pretty important.”
Justice Brent Appel also worried the changes made to Iowa’s absentee-voting process potentially could create “the risk of erroneous deprivation and no remedy” for voters in some circumstances.
However, Ogden said nearly 50 small, special elections and a statewide primary election have been held since the new law and administrative rules took effect, all without such accompanying problems. He urged the justices to set aside the injunction rather than conduct a mini-trial without evidence.
“We’re not here to argue the merits of the case,” Ogden said. “Typically in a temporary injunction, these are filed to maintain the status quo. Well, right now the status quo is this law.
The plaintiffs “are relying on this idea that these laws are disenfranchising droves of absentee voters and the data simply shows that’s not the case. We have record turnout for absentee voting,” Ogden added. “They have to prove that absent an injunction, the harm to the plaintiffs is clear, great and so eminent that relief is required from the court — and we just don’t have that.”
Spiva said since the Legislature did not specify reasons for changing long-standing provisions governing the state’s election laws, any action that potentially subverts or impedes constitutionally protected rights should be held to strict court scrutiny.
Since no detailed data about Iowa’s June 5 primary has been finalized and there has been no evidence of fraud, officials cannot determine how many ballots may have been challenged or rejected based on what he described as “false negatives” due to the signature-matching procedure, he said.
Spiva said there was no intentional “tactic” in the timing of the lawsuit, which Justice Thomas Waterman said appears to have caused some “scrambling” and “confusion” among election officials due to the court injunction.
Spiva said he believed any potential “cure” for problems raised over Iowa’s voting law changes could be done “well in advance of the next election” to ensure Iowans’ voting rights are protected.
Chief Justice Mark Cady concluded the hearing by calling the case “an important question that needs a quick answer.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have that decision relatively soon,” Joe Enriquez Henry, president of LULAC Council 307 in Des Moines, told reporters outside the Iowa Judicial Building where the arguments took place.
“Voting should not be made complicated. Voting is a constitutional right,” he said. “To put restrictions on the right to vote is to limit the participation of voters. This is wrong in so many different ways. We see this as a ploy to limit the amount of voters on Election Day so we are strongly opposed to what they are trying to do.”