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Trump suit targets mail-in ballots in state he needs to win

Jeffrey Taylor
Bloomberg

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is suing three Iowa counties to invalidate requests for absentee ballots in a fight that has come down to about 18,000 ballots in a GOP-leaning state where more than a million people are expected to vote.

The dispute, which is likely headed for the Iowa Supreme Court, centers around the legitimacy of ballot applications that were sent out with some voter information already filled in.

More broadly, the legal battle shows how hard Trump is fighting to carry a state that was expected to be an easy win for him, one where he prevailed by almost 10 percentage points over Hillary Clinton four years ago.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Washington.

Trump is heading to Iowa later Wednesday for a campaign rally in Des Moines, with a trip this close to election serving as another sign that his campaign is worried about holding onto the state.

Recent polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a narrow lead in Iowa, and the state is also the site of a toss-up Senate race that may help determine which party controls the chamber. Early voting in Iowa has already begun, and requests for absentee ballots are running about five times higher than in 2016.

Trump has repeatedly asserted without evidence that absentee voting is a source of widespread voter fraud and that 80 million mail-in ballots are being sent to voters throughout the U.S. who didn’t request them.

In the Iowa case, however, Trump is contesting the exact kind of absentee ballots he has repeatedly described as valid: “solicited” ones specifically requested by registered voters.

Matthew Morgan, the Trump campaign’s top lawyer, has said that “rogue” election officials in Democratic-leaning counties have “rewritten the rules for absentee ballot security” by mailing out absentee ballot requests to active registered voters with personal identifying information, including required voter ID numbers some people don’t know, already filled in.

The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican Party of Iowa are also parties in the lawsuits.

The court fight has had the effect of making some voters wary of mail-in voting, said the Linn County auditor, Joel Miller, one of the officials sued by Trump’s re-election committee.

“The broader goal seems to be to create chaos and confusion,” Miller said in an interview. “People are scared now to use the mail system, so people are filling out their ballots and bringing them to our drop boxes.

Iowa’s Republican secretary of state, Paul Pate, issued a directive that requests for absentee ballots must be blank when mailed to voters. Last week, a judge, responding to a lawsuit filed by the Iowa Democratic party and Democratic congressional committees, blocked enforcement of Pate’s directive.

The Iowa Supreme Court, which has a majority of Republican-appointed justices, hasn’t set a date for a hearing or additional proceedings in the absentee ballot case but is expected to take some action in the next few days.

“This ruling only adds further confusion to voters who have been misled by unlawful decisions by the Johnson, Linn and Woodbury county auditors,” Pate said in a statement. “Additionally, it has no bearing on previous court rulings that forbid those auditors from mailing pre-filled absentee ballot request forms.”

Alan Ostergren, a local attorney representing the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, and Gary Dickey, a Des Moines lawyer representing Democratic party committees in the litigation, declined to comment.

A spokesman for Pate said the vast majority of voters who requested ballots using pre-completed forms in the three counties subsequently made new requests using blank forms and that about 726,000 voters statewide had requested absentee ballots so far.

But about 18,000 voters in the three counties haven’t followed up with new ballot requests – and those people didn’t receive ballots when they were mailed starting Oct. 5. That total may be significant in hard-fought presidential, Senate and congressional elections in what has become a crucial swing state, Linn County’s Miller said.

“I didn’t think Iowa was in play as of two months ago, and now it is,” Miller said. “The purpose of the Trump lawsuit was certainly to tamp down voter engagement, and I think it worked a little bit. But I still expect an 80% turnout of registered voters.”