Recount drama in US House race as Iowa candidates near a tie

Iowa News

FILE – In this Oct. 8, 2020 file photo, Mariannette Miller-Meeks answers a question during a debate with Rita Hart in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Republican Miller-Meeks is running in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election for the congressional seat left open by the retirement of longtime Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack, of Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette via AP, File)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The historically close race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District seat could be approaching a tie.

Democrat Rita Hart on Wednesday cut Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ lead to nine votes out of more than 394,400 cast, with recount boards in all but two of the district’s 24 counties reporting their results.

The race is the closest in the nation and could tighten even further ahead of Monday’s certification deadline. A single-digit victory for either candidate is possible as is a tie, which according to state law would result in a winner’s name being drawn from a hat, bowl or some other receptacle.

Hart netted 26 votes in Scott County after the recount board adjourned Wednesday without addressing a discrepancy in the number of absentee ballots recorded. Her campaign says it also expects to net nine votes in Jasper County, if the results remain unchanged after another machine recount of absentee ballots concludes Wednesday night.

That could tie the race with only Clinton County — where Hart lives on a Wheatland farm and served as an educator and state senator — yet to report.

Clinton’s recount board has already reviewed most of its ballots, with Hart so far netting a single vote, said county auditor Eric Van Lancker. The board will return Saturday morning to finish recounting the last 5,000 or so absentee ballots, he said.

A state canvassing board is expected to meet Monday, the legal deadline, to certify the results of the race. The trailing candidate is likely to file legal action to contest the recount outcome, which would set in motion a proceeding run by a judicial panel.

The outcome will help determine the size of the Democrats’ slim majority in the House of Representatives and whether Republicans flip a second Iowa seat. The candidates are vying to replace Democrat Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring after seven terms.

Hart requested a districtwide recount after counties’ initial certifications showed her trailing by 47 votes, following an election in which reporting errors flipped the lead back and forth between the candidates.

The recount has been slow but drama-filled as the race has tightened. As of Wednesday, Miller-Meeks has 196,880 votes, Hart has 196,845. That’s 49.91% to 49.91%, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

Scott County, the most populous in the district, had been set to certify the 26-vote swing Wednesday that would help Hart erase most of Miller-Meeks’ lead. But the county board postponed the meeting after the auditor discovered the recount recorded 131 more absentee ballots than the earlier canvass.

The county’s recount board reconvened Wednesday to determine whether and how to address the discrepancy, which could be the result of a machine or math error, or the discovery of ballots that were uncounted on election night.

The board voted 2-1 to adjourn, rejecting the Miller-Meeks designee’s request for a fresh machine recount of absentee ballots.

“The recount of absentee ballots in Scott County was unreliable,” said Miller-Meeks campaign attorney Alan Ostergren.

Compared to the county’s earlier canvass, Hart added 105 votes and Miller-Meeks added 79.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign has already argued that the process used in Scott County to recount the votes was illegal. It entailed using a machine to recount the ballots, and then examining by hand those that the machine could not read to determine voter intent.

Miller-Meeks’ representatives argue Iowa law requires recounts to be either done by machine or hand, not a combination of the two. Hart’s campaign notes that the process has been approved by the recount board, which includes representatives of both campaigns and one neutral person, and is backed by a Scott County legal opinion.

In Jasper County, a ballot tabulating machine broke down during the recount and had to be repaired, said county auditor Dennis Parrott. Miller-Meeks’ campaign has alleged that, once repaired, the machine could not reliably read ballots and disputed the count after Hart gained ground.

The recount board brought in a new tabulating machine Wednesday afternoon to recount 10,999 absentee ballots that were in question, Parrott said. Final results could be approved by late evening.

Then the attention will turn to Clinton, where the auditor said the recount board will convene Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and work for hours.

“To draw a U.S. congressperson out of a coffee cup, I don’t know about that one, right? But we have these rules. If we come up with a tie, we’ve got the tiebreaker,” Van Lancker said. “I’m confident because of the processes that we have, we’re going to get to a result that we can be confident in.”

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