DES MOINES, Iowa — A lawyer for former Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn a lower court judge's ruling that kicked her off the June primary ballot, saying she deserves the chance to vie for the chance to run against Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in November.
Finkenauer, whom many Democrats see as their best chance — albeit a remote one — to deny Grassley an eighth Senate term, turned in nearly 5,000 signatures to get on the June 7 primary ballot, but two Republicans argued before the State Objections Panel that she hadn't submitted at least 100 from at least 19 counties, as required by a state law. They pointed to three signatures in two counties that were not properly dated.
The panel dismissed the claim, but Polk County Judge Scott Beattie, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2018, overruled the panel on Sunday, finding that a strict interpretation of the law means that improperly dated signatures must be discarded.
Finkenauer appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Her attorney, Gary Dickey, argued in court filings that Beattie overreached by disqualifying her. He said the state panel has long held that statutes governing nominating petitions should be liberally construed to the benefit of petition signers to provide every lawful opportunity to express their preferences at the ballot box. The panel has long used the substantial compliance policy to uphold signatures missing dates or with other mistakes for both Republicans and Democrats. It did so as recently as 2020, when it allowed a Republican congressional candidate to stay on the ballot despite a missing signature date.
“The district court’s reversal of the panel’s decision threatens to deny Iowans their right to vote for a candidate of their choice,” he said in court filings.
Dickey also argued that the two Republicans who challenged Finkenauer's petitions have no legal standing to challenge them because they can't vote in the Democratic primary. The argument seemed to gain some traction, as it drew several questions from the high court.
The panel’s lawyers from the state attorney general’s office argued in a brief that although one section of state law requires signatures another section regulating nomination petitions lists reasons to reject signatures, including if they are eligible or if the address is missing.
Lack of a date is not listed as a reason for rejecting a signature.
“If the Legislature had intended to prevent counting of such signatures, it could have easily added such a requirement,” they wrote. “This court shouldn’t do what the Legislature has chosen not to.”
Alan Ostergren, the lawyer for the two Republicans who challenged Finkenauer’s petitions, said the panel’s substantial compliance standard has no basis in the law, has been used selectively and should be rejected by the court. He said the electoral process, like many other aspects of life, is full of rules that cannot be ignored.
“Any claimed unfairness in sustaining these objections pales in comparison to the potential unfairness to the candidates and campaigns who expended the time and resources to follow the law,” he told the high court.
He said campaigns should know that to avoid such problems they should obtain many more signatures than needed as recommended by the secretary of state.
“A candidate ignores this advice at her peril,” he said.
The high court didn't say when it might rule, but it is expected to do so soon because ballots must be sent to printers by Monday to meet a legal deadline to mail ballots to Iowa residents living abroad.
"I have hope here because we're right on the law. And if the Supreme Court justices follow the law, as written, that will mean, we are on the ballot," Finkenauer told Local 5's Mary Sugden after the hearing.
The winner of the primary will face Grassley, who is seeking an eighth Senate term.
Finkenauer, who served one term in the U.S. House from 2019-2021, seeks to be on the ballot with Democrats Mike Franken, a retired Navy admiral, and Glenn Hurst, a doctor and Minden City Council member.