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Secretary of State Paul Pate, Iowa's top election official, will be asking Iowa lawmakers this year to bring uniformity to how ballots are recounted in close elections.
As proposed, the measure would standardize the recount timeline across Iowa's 99 counties, increase the size of recount boards in larger counties and require more uniform methods for recounting, reconciling and reporting ballots, according to a Thursday news release from the secretary of state’s office.
"This bill would help ensure we have clean, secure elections and a recount process that is uniform across the state," Pate said in a statement. "We’ve had the opportunity to identify these areas of improvement while observing several large-scale recounts in recent years."
Recounts were undertaken in three Iowa House districts after the November election -- in Linn, Scott and Cerro Gordo counties -- with an unusual swing in results in the Scott County district. Two years ago, a lengthy, messy recount for a seat in the U.S. House saw Republican Mariannette Miller Meeks outpoll Democrat Rita Hart by six votes.
Under Pate’s proposal, the size of recount boards would depend on a county’s population. Currently, a three-member board handles recounts, with the two candidates selecting one member each and agreeing on the third.
Under the proposed legislation, recount boards in counties with a population of 15,000 to 49,000 would grow to five members. Counties with a population of more than 50,000 would have seven-member recount boards.
The candidates would pick two members of the recount board. The others would be election poll workers -- balanced by party affiliation -- selected by the chief judge of the judicial district.
"Recounts in large counties are difficult for just three people to conduct," Pate said. "I'd like to give the recount boards more members, so the tallying of votes is more manageable and more efficient."
The bill also would make the recount process more uniform in multicounty races, such as in a congressional district. In the 2020 recount of the Miller-Meeks and Hart race, some counties did recounts by hand and some did tallies by machine.
"The proposed bill seeks to end that practice," the news release stated.
Another change would require all counties to officially canvass election results on a certain day to create a uniform timeline.
It's unknown what kind of support the bill will receive in the Legislature, but House Speaker Pat Grassley said in late December he expected more conversations about ensuring recount uniformity and trust in elections.
“I think you’re going to see the Legislature engage with the county level to see why are these things happening because we want Iowans to have full confidence in the election system,” Grassley said. “And when they don’t see a result until the second week of December on a state legislative race, people kind of think ‘Oh, what’s going on there?’ ”
More time to mail ballots
The state association of county auditors will be asking Iowa lawmakers to lengthen the window for early and by-mail voting after lawmakers in 2017 and 2021 shortened that window from 40 to 20 days.
Leaders of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors would like to see lawmakers restore the 40-day early voting window.
If Republican lawmakers don’t want to do that, the auditors are suggesting an option to ease the time crunch: Allow county auditors to mail out absentee ballots five days before in-person voting begins.
That approach would help with the workload and also cut down on voter confusion, Ringgold County Auditor and association President Amanda Waske said.
Waske said she mailed ballots in November to an Iowa couple wintering in Arizona. When they reported they hadn’t received them, there wasn't time to send them the ballots and have them returned by Election Day.
All 99 county auditors have a vote on the association's legislative priorities for the year, and more than 70 percent of Iowa’s county auditors are Republicans, according to a review of the association's website.
The association opposed the legislation shortening the window for early voting and has made returning to the 40-day window a priority each year, said Past President Jennifer Garms, the auditor of Clayton County.
But the appetite for returning to a 40-day window among Republican legislative leaders is likely very low.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said of election laws: “I don't envision a lot of drastic changes at this point going forward.”
Iowa is among 14 states that mail out ballots fewer than 30 days before an election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado and Washington State mail ballots 18 days before an election, and Kansas mails them 20 days ahead of an election.
Among states that offer early in-person voting, that early- voting periods range from 3 to 46 days. The average is 23.
"I think 20 days is a very, very reasonable period for people to vote early," Whitver said. "And it's right in the middle of all the 50 states. There's a lot of liberal states out there that are a lot tighter."