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State certifies Miller-Meeks wins Iowa U.S. House race by 6 votes. A legal challenge is likely
By Tom Barton, Quad City Times
Nov. 30, 2020 5:17 pm, Updated: Nov. 30, 2020 5:43 pm
Nearly four weeks after the election, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was declared the official winner Monday of Iowa's 2nd Congressional District race - by just six votes, the closest congressional race in the country and one that flips a seat held by Democrats for 14 years.
The state canvassing board Monday certified results for the race following vote recounts in all 24 counties in the southeastern Iowa district that includes Iowa City, Davenport and Burlington.
Miller-Meeks, a state senator and ophthalmologist from Ottumwa, edged out Democrat and former state Sen. Rita Hart of Wheatland, with 196,964 votes to Hart's 196,958.
'Once again, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the voters of #IA02,” Miller-Meeks tweeted after the canvassing board certified the results. 'I will never quit fighting for you and your opportunity at the American dream! Let's get to work!”
There still is a possibility of legal challenges brought by the Hart campaign, which would set in motion a proceeding before a judicial panel.
The Associated Press is expected to wait until after all legal appeals are exhausted before declaring a winner in the race.
The Hart campaign has not said if it will mount a legal challenge, but issued a statement Monday saying that 'over the next few days, we will outline our next steps in this process to ensure that all Iowans' voices are heard.”
The Hart campaign has asserted 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 consider only ballots considered on election night, per state law. That means that even if a recount board were aware of ballots unlawfully excluded from the initial count, it could not include those ballots in a recount, according to Hart's campaign. That issue would have to go to an election contest.
Miller-Meeks' six-vote lead represents the slimmest margin in any congressional race since 1984, when Indiana's 8th District was decided by four votes.
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, curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
'This race reinforces that every single vote can make a difference and hopefully sends a message about how important it is to be a voter,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said.
The State Canvassing Board is made up of Pate, a Republican; as well as Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, Republican Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Democratic State Auditor Rod Sand and Democratic State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald. The full state canvass is available on the Iowa Secretary of State's website at sos.iowa.gov.
The race's outcome narrowed considerably since election night, when Miller-Meeks 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.
Earlier Monday, the Scott County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to certify the results of the county recount in the Iowa congressional race, ahead of the State Canvassing Board meeting. That came despite an unexplained discrepancy in the absentee ballot total - with the recount board tallying 131 more absentee ballots than the Scott County Auditor's postelection canvass.
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 last week, 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 should be resolved through a legal contest.
Moritz said Iowa Code prevents her from conducting an administrative machine count to verify the discrepancy, noting all votes were counted - 'there are more ballots than votes.”
'If a candidate is disappointed in the recount, their options are to file a contest (in court),” Moritz 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 rerun through a different tabulation machine on Election Day, after another tabulator broke, were mistakenly placed in a box of already counted absentee ballots.
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.”
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.”
Jeff Thompson with the Iowa Attorney General's Office also emphasized Monday that the duty and obligation of the State Canvassing Board was to receive the returns provided by Pate's office and administratively determine whether the canvass was correct and declare the result.
'To the extent that there is a challenge or a contest of a particular result, that is covered in the next step and another statutory scheme,” Thompson said.
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 trial of the case as is necessary for the protection of the rights of each party and a just and speedy trial in the case,” Moritz said, reading from state code.
Hart would be required to post a bond to cover the cost of the challenge if unsuccessful.
The five-judge panel would be expected to rule by Dec. 8 on which candidate is entitled to hold the office, Moritz said.
Hart's campaign also has the option of requesting that the Democrat-controlled U.S. House investigate the contested election, with Congress as the final arbiter, Moritz said. Congress has intervened in tight race in rate occasion in the past, according to both Moritz and the Associated Press.
The winner replaces Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring after holding the seat for seven terms.
At stake is the size of Democrats' majority in the U.S. House and whether Republicans could flip a second Iowa congressional seat this cycle and clinch a 3-to-1 majority of Iowa's four congressional seats.
Miller-Meeks lost three previous runs against Loebsack in 2008, 2010 and 2014.
'It is the honor of a lifetime to be elected to serve the people of eastern and southern Iowa,” Miller-Meeks, an Army veteran and former state public health director, said in a statement on Saturday, declaring victory after Clinton County, the last county in the district, had completed its recount. 'Iowans are tenacious, optimistic and hardworking, and I will take those same attributes to Washington, D.C., on their behalf.”