Judge voids 50,000 absentee ballot requests in Iowa county

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2020 The Gazette

District Court Judge Judge Thornhill presides during a hearing in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Thornhill said Thursday he will rule soon on a request from President Donald Trump's reelection campaign to invalidate 50,000 requests for absentee ballots submitted by voters in Iowa's second-largest county. (Liz Martin/The Gazette via AP, Pool)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A judge ordered an Iowa county Thursday to invalidate 50,000 requests for absentee ballots, agreeing with President Donald Trump's campaign that its elections commissioner overstepped his authority by pre-filling them with voters' personal information.

Judge Ian Thornhill issued a temporary injunction ordering Linn County Auditor Joel Miller to notify voters in writing that the forms should not have been pre-filled with their information and cannot be processed. Instead, they'll have to either fill out new requests for absentee ballots or vote on Election Day.

The ruling marks an initial victory for Trump's challenges to absentee voting procedures in three counties in Iowa, which is expected to be competitive in his race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. They're part of an unprecedented legal battle involving dozens of lawsuits nationwide that will shape the rules of the election.

Republicans said the ruling would hold a “rogue auditor” accountable and enhance voting security, while outraged Democrats called it an act of voter suppression. Miller said he would abide by the order, pledging to void the returned requests and send out new blank forms to voters next month.

At issue was Miller’s decision to send absentee ballot request forms to 140,000 voters in July that were already filled with their personal information, including names, dates of birth and, most significantly, voter identification numbers.

Miller, a Democrat, has said his goal was to make it as easy as possible to vote absentee during a pandemic, as the virus spreads uncontrolled across the state.

Voters had to review, sign and return the forms to request ballots that will be mailed beginning Oct. 5. About 50,000 requests have been returned in the Democratic-leaning county, which is Iowa's second largest and is recovering from a derecho that devastated the region Aug. 10. The phone system for the county elections office remained out of service Thursday.

Thornhill ruled that Miller's mailing violated a “clear directive” from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who told county officials in July that absentee ballot request forms mailed to voters must be blank in order to ensure uniformity.