CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Tens of thousands of absentee ballot request forms with pre-filled information sent to Linn County voters are invalid and cannot be used to secure a ballot ahead of November's election, a judge ruled Thursday siding with President Trump's campaign and Republicans who challenged the mailings.
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller sent 140,000 absentee ballot request forms with pre-filled personal information like name, address, birth date and voter ID PIN number. At least 45,000 voters in Linn County have already returned them, according to Miller, whose actions are at the center of the decision. Those are now null.
Voters must send a new request with information they fill out themselves or they can vote in-person on November 3.
The ruling came Thursday evening, hours after a hearing in Cedar Rapids. Linn County District Judge Ian Thornhill said Miller must notify voters that the forms are invalid and cannot be used to get an absentee ballot to vote, delivering a legal victory to Trump's campaign, the Republican National Committee and other Republican groups who sued.
Thursday's decision is the first in a series of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and others against the mailing of pre-filled absentee ballot request forms. There is similar litigation pending in Woodbury and Johnson counties, whose auditors also sent pre-filled forms. This ruling impacts Linn County only.
Miller, who is a Democrat, has previously said he sent applications with personal information in an effort to make voting safe and easy during a pandemic. All required of voters was to sign the forms and return them in order to get an absentee ballot for the November election.
Assistant Linn County Attorney Elena Wolford during the hearing made the case that Miller acted as a duly elected official when he sent the applications and that the move would not harm the plaintiffs or give way to potential fraud, which was part of their argument.
“Although the secretary of state can certainly supervise the county auditors, he does not have blanket authority over them," Wolford said.
But Thornhill agreed with Republicans that Miller overstepped his authority by sending the auto-populated forms. In his decision, he cited Iowa code allowing the secretary of state to prescribe uniform election practices — like the blank forms mandated in an emergency directive —and wrote that requiring a signature on an absentee ballot request form implies that the information is provided by the voter.
"It is implausible to conclude that near total completion of an absentee ballot application by the auditor is authorized under Iowa law where the legislature has specifically forbidden government officials from partially completing the same document," wrote Thornhill.
He is referencing a new law prohibiting county auditors from using a voting database to fill-in missing or incomplete information on an absentee ballot request form. That law was part of the reason Miller and other auditors argued they sent the pre-filled forms in the first place.
The decision drew praise from Republicans and outrage from Democrats, who said the lawsuit was "partisan, malicious effort by the Republican Party to disenfranchise voters and subvert the voice of Iowans in November."
"Today's ruling undermines our fundamental right to vote, and if allowed to stand will make it more difficult for thousands of Iowans to safely vote by mail during this pandemic," said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith in a statement.
Early voting begins October 5. The auditor's office in a news release said it acknowledged the judge's decision and "will be voiding each Linn County absentee request form which was pre-filled with voter information."
Officials will mail a new blank absentee ballot request form and return envelope to each impacted voter in mid-September. The secretary of state's office is also sending blank request forms to voters in counties across the state, some of which were not planning their own mailings.
Thursday's decision is the first in a series of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and others against the mailing of pre-filled absentee ballot request forms.
There is similar litigation pending in Woodbury and Johnson counties, whose auditors also sent pre-filled forms. This ruling impacts Linn County only.
There is a hearing in Woodbury County scheduled for Friday and one in Johnson County on September 9.