Today, the Iowa district court for Polk County issued a ruling on a case challenging Iowa’s 2017 election law.
The result was mixed when it comes to voting rights in Iowa.
Most important, the part that requires voter ID was upheld. However, a few other provisions that posed a challenge to voting rights in Iowa were struck down or modified.
In the ruling, Judge Joseph Seidlin ruled that some parts of the 2017 law (HF 516) were unconstitutional, and he clarified language about what happens to absentee ballot applications that don’t have verification numbers.
When it comes to the IDs themselves, the court found that the requirement isn’t a significant barrier because so many different kinds of IDs can be used, though Democrats contend that things like student IDs should be included. If people don’t have them, they can apply for a Voter ID Card.
However, under the current law, you could only apply for a Voter ID Card if you didn’t have driver’s license or nonoperator’s ID card. That could cause problems for older Iowans who still show up in the Department of Transportation as having a license, but no longer use it.
Seidlin reversed that decision.
“All eligible, registered voters should be able to ask for and receive a Voter ID Card from their county auditor so that every voter can cast a ballot as easily as every other voter,” Seidlin wrote. He also called for the language excluding that group to be struck from the bill.
One other provision the judge struck down was that county auditors could choose to verify the signatures on a voter’s absentee ballot application and throw out ones they felt the signatures did not match on. Most county auditors were already uncomfortable with being tasked with examining signatures.
This ruling was based on the fact that the legislation doesn’t outline a procedure for verifying signatures or providing training to the people who would look at them. It also didn’t clarify where workers would find “on record” signatures to compare to those on applications.
Seidlin ruled those oversights, “all contribute to a likelihood of error in determining a voter’s signature doesn’t match.” He wrote that could then result in votes not being counted.
Another change to the 2017 law is clarification that absentee ballot applications without a verification number won’t be rejected.
Instead, Seidlin’s ruling points to a section of the Iowa Code that confirms that the responsibility for providing missing information falls to the county auditors.
Seidlin wrote, “The application is not rejected; the county auditor is to obtain the missing information to complete the application. This may include obtaining the voter verification number from the Secretary of State or DOT records.”
Previous language in the 2017 law read, “an absentee ballot cannot be issued until ID number is provided.” The district court ruling declared that language, and any that implies verification numbers are required should be removed.
What this means in practice is that if a voter doesn’t fill out the part of their absentee ballot request that requires a voter ID number or drivers license number (something they wouldn’t know off-hand), their request form will still be processed and an absentee ballot sent.
Reactions to the Ruling
State Rep. Vicki Lensing was overall satisfied with the ruling.
“Voting should be easy. Voting is your voice so we shouldn’t put obstacles in the way of people,” she said. “We should make it as easy as possible, and so I think that ruling is helpful. I think sometimes if you place too many obstacles in the way, people find reasons not to vote. It could be a lot worse. I’m glad that it moved forward.”
Rep. Bruce Hunter’s reaction was similar.
“Overall, it’s okay. I think we’ve still gotta go with the premise that a voter ID law, no matter how watered down it is, is still a voter suppression act,” he said.
Even with the language that any registered voter can be issued a voter ID card, Hunter said the law is going to hurt the elderly, minorities and people who can’t access the polls.
“On the surface, I like the ruling that anyone can get a voter ID card. The tricky part’s going to be in the details. It all depends on how the Secretary of State’s office is going to handle this,” Hunter said.
In response to this news, two of the presidential candidates have issued statements as of press time.
For Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, Sioux City Rep. Chris Hall said, “Judge Seidlin’s ruling is a victory for Iowans and our constitutional right to vote. Republicans across the country have fought to restrict access to the ballot box, and as President, Beto O’Rourke will ensure everyone’s voices are heard in our democracy.”
Montana Governor Steve Bullock said, “Voter suppression has no place in our democracy, and this ruling is a step towards a more accessible ballot box. The right to vote is one of the Great Equalizers that defines our American identity. As President, I’ll continue that work to ensure that our government represents the voice of every American.
by Nikoel Hytrek