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Scott County OKs Iowa congressional race recount results, despite ballot discrepancy

Scott County OKs Iowa congressional race recount results, despite ballot discrepancy

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Nearly four weeks after the election, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks is poised to be declared the official winner — by just six votes — in what has become the closest congressional race in the country, flipping a seat held by Democrats for the past 14 years.

The Scott County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to certify the results of a county recount in the uncalled Iowa 2nd congressional district race, despite an unexplained 131-ballot discrepancy between the number of absentee ballots counted on election day and those counted by the recount board.

A state canvassing board is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon, the legal deadline under Iowa Code, to certify the results of the race, following a districtwide recount in all 24 counties, and officially declare Miller-Meeks as the winner of the race.

However, there is still a possibility of legal challenges brought by the campaign of Democrat Rita Hart, which would set in motion a proceeding before a judicial panel.

The Hart campaign has not said if it will be filing a legal challenge, but has said it "will closely review what the county and state boards do on Monday with an eye toward making sure all Iowa voices are fully and fairly heard."

The campaign has alleged the Miller-Meeks campaign sought to keep legitimate votes from being counted — "pushing to disqualify and limit the number of Iowans whose votes are counted."

Recount boards may only consider ballots considered on Election Night, per state law. That means that even if a recount board is aware of ballots unlawfully excluded from the initial count, it cannot include those ballots, which would be addressed during an election contest, and only if those ballots are sufficient to change the ultimate results of an election.

Miller-Meeks' six-vote lead represents the slimmest margin in any congressional race since 1984, when Indiana’s 8th Congressional District was decided by four votes. And the margin is the smallest of any congressional race in Iowa since 1916.

Republican George C. Scott won by four votes over Democrat T.J. Steele to represent Iowa's then 11th Congressional District after a series of recounts whittled his margin from an initial 131-vote lead. Since then, only three state congressional races have come within 500 votes, said Leo Landis, said state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The roller-coaster race has seesawed and narrowed considerably since Election Night, when Miller-Meeks, a state senator and ophthalmologist from Ottumwa, held a 282-vote lead over Hart. Before the recount began, Miller-Meeks' lead had narrowed to 47 votes after late-arriving mail-in absentee and provisional ballots were counted, and precinct reporting errors were corrected in Jasper and Lucas counties.

The Scott County recount board adjourned last week without addressing a 131-ballot discrepancy between its tabulation of the absentee ballots received by the Scott County auditor and those included in the county's certified canvass of election results after election day.

Rather than conduct a full machine recount of absentee ballots requested by Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz, the board decided, 2-1, over the objections of Miller-Meeks' campaign, to adjourn, leaving the unexplained discrepancy.

The other two members of the board, including the Hart campaign's representative on the board, argued it was beyond their scope to conduct an audit. They said their task was not to reconcile the recount and initial county canvass of votes, but to conduct the recount in the fairest, most reasonable and transparent process available -- which they argue they did -- and that any discrepancy be resolved through a legal contest.

Moritz said Iowa Code prevents her from conducting an administrative machine count to verify the discrepancy.

"If a candidate is disappointed in the recount, their options are to file a contest (in court)," Mortiz told county supervisors.

No definitive explanation has been given for the ballot discrepancy. However, one plausible explanation, according to Moritz, is that absentee ballots that were to be re-run through a different tabulation machine on election day, after another tabulator broke down, were mistakenly placed in a box of already counted absentee ballots.

Scott County Attorney Michael Walton on Monday said Iowa Code states county supervisors "shall" certify the recount board's results.

"I don't see, really, any alternative at this point," Walton said. "Yes, it's not perfect. Yes, there are questions that one side or the other may want answered through a contest. But, I don't see any point in the board (of supervisors) not following the law at this point ... and thereby creating some sort of litigation at this level, and possibly interfering with the completion of the Iowa certification of its elections."

Scott County Supervisors John Maxwell and Ken Croken, while troubled by the discrepancy, said their hands were tied.

"Certifying doesn't mean we are good with this outcome," Croken said. "It means we would like the process to move forward ... expeditiously."

Miller-Meeks campaign has criticized the machine-assisted hand count process used by the Scott County recount board, arguing it is not allowed under state law and cannot be trusted.

The Scott County recount board ran ballots through a high-speed scanner, which tabulated votes for Miller-Meeks and Hart and sorted out overvotes, write-ins and unclear ballots. It did not separate out some 3,400 undervotes to check for voter intent the same as overvotes, with the Miller-Meeks campaign claiming the recount board used a double-standard that disenfranchised voters.

The Iowa Secretary of State and Scott County Attorney's offices have said the machine-assisted hand count process was permissible, and that state statute gives the board wide autonomy.

"Even if you include everything that broke in Rita Hart's favor in Scott County — which we disagree with, we don't think that was an accurate recount — even including that, Mariannette Miller-Meeks still won this race," Alan Ostergren, an attorney for the Miller-Meeks campaign, said Saturday. "So I don't see where the Hart campaign has anything it can point to in its benefit in an election contest, but it would be speculation on my part to see what they would allege in their court filings if they did go that point."

At stake is the size of Democrats' majority in the U.S. House and whether Republicans will flip a second Iowa congressional seat this cycle that's been in Democrats hands since 2007, and clinch a 3-to-1 majority of Iowa's four congressional seats.

Miller-Meeks and Hart are vying to replace U.S. Rep. David Loebsack, a Democrat who is retiring after holding the seat for seven terms.

Hart has two days to contest the state-certified results, per Iowa Code, throwing the race to a five-member judicial tribunal presided over by the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.

"The contest court shall make and announce such rules of the trail of the case as is necessary of the protection of the rights of each party and a just and speedy trial in the case," Moritz said, reading from state code. "The objective is to be complete by Dec. 8."

Hart's campaign also has the option of requesting that the U.S. House of Representatives investigate the contested elections, with Congress as the final arbiter, Moritz said.

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