Leading Iowa Democrat Battles In Court To Qualify For Bid To Challenge Grassley

DUBUQUE, IA-JUNE 4, 2018: Democratic candidate Abby Finkenauer (Photo by Lauren Justice for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), Democrats’ current leading contender to take on Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in the fall, is already fighting for her political life — and that’s just to get on the ballot.

Two Republican voters challenged a slew of the Finkenauer campaign’s signatures in a throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall strategy. Officials ultimately winnowed the list down to focus on scrutinizing just three signatures with either the incorrect date or no date at all. If those three got tossed, Finkenauer would only have the necessary 100 signatures in 17 counties — not the required 19 —disqualifying her from making the primary ballot. 

On Wednesday, lawyers for the two sides argued before the Iowa Supreme Court, a heavily conservative body composed of six Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee.

Much of the arguments consisted of fighting over the particulars of Iowa’s election laws — namely, whether a missing or incomplete date is enough to invalidate a signature. 

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The lawyer for the Finkenauer campaign, Gary Dickey, also argued at length that the two Republican voters lack standing to bring the lawsuit at all. 

“This does not implicate anyone’s right to vote — the objectors’ right to vote is not at all affected, they can vote for whoever they want,” Dickey said. “Even if they’re injured somehow, they haven’t identified how their injury is somehow different than my injury, or the injury of any other eligible elector in the state of Iowa, and unless they can do that … they lack standing to do that, they’re not aggrieved.” 

Alan Ostergren, representing the Republican voters, retorted that the legislature has allowed any eligible voter who wants to challenge these signatures to do so, and that “every voter has an interest in the orderly functioning of the electoral process.” 

He also jabbed the Finkenauer campaign for not collecting more signatures in the first place to give itself a buffer. 

“Ordinarily, these cases don’t reach this court because ordinarily, candidates file more signatures than you need to, and that’s why we’re here,” Ostergren said. “You don’t come in right at the line. Inevitably, some signatures are not going to count.”

The most vocal justices seemed split on the case, with Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Brent Appel and Dana Oxley sounding sympathetic to the state’s arguments, while Justices Christopher McDonald and Matthew McDermott made arguments supporting the GOP voters. The court has until Friday to turn around its decision, so the Secretary of State’s office can finalize ballots. 

The case reached the state’s highest court after wending its way through a state panel and a district court. 

The State Objection Panel — composed of the Democratic state attorney general and auditor and the Republican secretary of state — ruled two-to-one along party lines that the signatures counted, greenlighting Finkenauer to make the ballot.

The Republican voters appealed, sending the case to a district court. 

There, Judge Scott Beattie, appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), ruled in favor of the Republican voters. 

“The Court takes no joy in this conclusion,” Beattie wrote. “The Court should not be in the position to make a decision to make a difference in an election, and Ms. Finkenauer and her supporters should have a chance to support her candidacy.” 

“However, this Court’s job is to sit as a referee and apply the law without passion or prejudice,” he added. 

Finkenauer’s campaign then appealed the case to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In their filings, the Republican voters argue that correct dates are part of the signature requirement, so tough luck.

“Requiring the signer to personally date his or her signature is an important measure to prevent fraud in the nomination petition process,” their lawyer wrote, adding that the state panel’s decision “would literally take something called a ‘requirement’ and make it optional.”

“And for the candidate who is concerned about a signature here or there being invalid, there is a simple answer: turn in more signatures than the bare minimum,” they quipped at the Finkenauer campaign. 

The Finkenauer campaign responded by arguing that the two Republican voters don’t have standing to bring the suit in the first place, since they wouldn’t be eligible to vote in the Democratic primary for which she’s trying to make the ballot. The campaign also argues that there is foundation in the statutory text to prove that incorrect or missing dates is not enough to disqualify the signatures. 

“The District Court’s decision, if allowed to stand, will misconstrue the statutory grounds for not counting signatures, thwart the Panel’s faithful application of precedent, and ultimately deny Ms. Finkenauer access to the ballot in contravention of the will of the thousands of eligible electors who signed her Nominating Petition,” the campaign wrote. 

State Attorney General Thomas Miller, a Democrat, also filed a brief arguing in support of Finkenauer on statutory grounds. He pointed out that the legislature had recently made some parts of the law stricter, but chose to leave the date requirements alone, suggesting that the panel should stick to its precedent of not disqualifying signatures based on incomplete or missing dates.

Regardless of what happens with Finkenauer’s candidacy, Grassley has the clear edge in the general election. The seven-time successful incumbent has a significant lead in what scant polling has been done in the state. Navy veteran Mike Franken and physician Glenn Hurst are also competing for the Democratic nomination. 

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