DES MOINES — A divided Iowa Supreme Court Friday halted some provisions of the state’s new identity verification requirements for voters casting absentee ballots but let stand a 2017 change that reduced the number of days early voting would take place from 40 to 29 for the November general election.
In its decision, the justices affirmed portions of a lower-court injunction blocking statutory provisions from taking effect ahead of November’s general election – most notably ruling state election officials cannot enforce signature-matching requirements for absentee ballots and they cannot require voters to include an identification number on absentee-ballot request forms.
Chief Justice Mark Cady issued the 5-page order one day after the panel heard arguments from both sides on the state’s request seeking to lift a district judge’s temporary injunction barring the state from implementing some provisions of Iowa’s new voter ID law. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the decision.
In the order, four of the six justices who considered the issue affirmed a district court ruling that barred the state from using a signature-matching system as a means of verifying voters’ identifications on absentee-ballot applications.
Two justices – Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield – broke with the majority on that issue, preferring not to temporarily enjoin the signature-matching provisions but indicating that any absentee ballot received by election officials after the Saturday 5 p.m. deadline that was deemed to have a signature mismatch would be treated and preserved as a provisional ballot under Iowa law with notice mailed to the voter and an opportunity to the voter to demonstrate to the special precinct election board that the signature on the envelope was that of the voter.
Justice Brent Appel did not concur with the five majority justices who lifted the injunction on reducing the time frame for mailing out or casting absentee ballots from 40 to 29 days before Election Day.
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.
In Friday’s order, five of the six justices affirmed the temporary injunction enjoining the requirement that absentee-ballot applications contain a voter verification number as set forth in the 2017 legislation, with Waterman being the lone dissenter on that issue.
The justices unanimously affirmed provisions of the injunction that prevents the Iowa Secretary of State’s office from including on the absentee ballot application language stating: “An absentee ballot cannot be issued until ID number is provided” or similar words indicating that such information is “required,” and from disseminating materials stating: “Iowa voters will be asked to show a form of valid identification when voting,” or similar words, without a clear statement that identification is not required to vote in 2018, according to the order.
The justices sent the case back to district court for further consideration.
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.
During Thursday’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court justices, an attorney representing Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said data from dozens of small election and the June primary suggest that absentee voters have been able to cast their ballots and that the revised system is working.
However, the lawyer representing LULAC’s position argued that provisions of House File 516 impede Iowa’s voters by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on potential voters.
“Today’s order from the Iowa Supreme Court is a clear victory for Iowa voters, who faced a real threat that their votes would not be counted because of unnecessary, politically motivated provisions written into state law by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate,” said Leigh Chapman, senior policy advisor for Let America Vote.
“The highest court in the state has effectively ordered Pate to stop lying about his voter-suppression law, and to remove the most egregious barriers for eligible Iowans trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” Chapman added.
“The courts still must rule on the merits of Iowa’s voter-suppression law, and we hope they disqualify it as the unnecessary, expensive and bureaucratic burden that it is. But today’s order from the Supreme Court is an important step that will ensure eligible voters’ ballots are cast and counted this November,” according to Chapman. “By writing this law and then defending it in court, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate has shown he’s more interested in securing his re-election than in upholding eligible Iowans’ right to vote.”
Pate issued a statement expressing his disappointment in Friday’s split decision but thanks the justices for expediting the case and saying he looked forward to “a full hearing on the merits of the case” at a future date.
“Voters benefit from having clarity in how the election laws will be applied for the November general election,” Pate said in his statement.
“It is important for voters to remember that for elections held in 2018,” he added, “pre-registered voters are required to provide an approved form of identification or sign an oath of identification before receiving and casting a ballot at the polls on Election Day. We will continue to work with and follow the guidance of the Attorney General’s Office in messages to voters and training for county auditors and poll workers.”