DES MOINES — A quick resolution of a contested Iowa House race appears unlikely as Republicans and Democrats clashed Monday over the rules for determining whether 29 mail-in ballots should be counted.

At issue is Decorah Democrat Kayla Koether’s challenge of the Winneshiek County auditor’s decision not to count ballots submitted without the proper postal markings in the House 55 race.

Koether’s opponent, Republican Rep. Michael Bergan of Dorchester, has been declared the winner by nine votes. He was sworn in Monday.

A Polk County District Court judge ruled the matter should be settled according to House rules. Koether has asked the House to open and count the 29 ballots.

“She has the right to have her contest heard before the House, and that’s what she’s getting,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, who is chairing the election contest committee.

Holt insisted the process, which will continue when the committee meets again Wednesday, doesn’t have to be partisan.

“We’re going to take the law and we’re going to listen to the oral arguments … and possibly testimony, and we’re going to put the two together and make a decision,” he said after the five-member committee met Monday afternoon.

Among the requirements in the law, Holt said, is that ballots must be received by the county auditor on or before Election Day. If not, ballots can be counted if they arrive by the Monday after the election if they are postmarked.

If there is no postmark, they can be counted if the absentee ballot has an “intelligent mail bar code.”

However, Rep. Brian Myer, D-Des Moines, argued not counting the ballots would disenfranchise those 29 voters.

“We know they were in the stream of the federal postal service at the appropriate time and they came into the auditor’s office at the appropriate time. They should be counted,” Meyer said.

Meyer and the committee’s other Democrat, Rep. Mary Wolfe of Clinton, argued for calling witnesses after hearing from the attorneys. Under the rules adopted on a party-line vote, that decision will be made after attorneys present their arguments.

“If they want it to be fair, they have to have evidence presented,” Meyer said.

If Koether’s challenge is rejected, Meyer said, she and House Democrats might take the matter back to court because the outcome will make a difference to the people who voted in House 55 “and maybe they didn’t want Mr. Bergan as their representative.”

Not allowing witness testimony would be a violation of due process, Meyer said, and if Koether’s challenge is rejected it would violate voters’ right of equal protection because ballots are not handled the same way in every county.

Koether, who attended the committee meeting, told Radio Iowa she didn’t think the process needed to be partisan but rather “about empowering fellow Iowans who voted.”

“I hope this is a place where this body can show Iowa that we’ll work together on this issue, we’ll be open and transparent, and these folks’ right will be honored,” she said.

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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