ELECTION 2020

Miller-Meeks campaign claims missing votes, 'illegal' method in Scott County recount

Johnson County elections clerk Allison Wells reads results from a district to election observers Nov. 18 at the Johnson
Johnson County elections clerk Allison Wells reads results from a district to election observers Nov. 18 at the Johnson County Administration building in Iowa City. They were working on a recount in the U.S. House District 2 race, in which Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Rita Hart are separated by only dozens of votes. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The Republican candidate in Iowa’s still-too-close-to-call 2nd Congressional District says the results of a recount in Scott County completed over the weekend cannot be trusted, arguing “numerous votes” are missing.

Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ campaign over the weekend claimed the three-member recount board’s tally of absentee ballots is off by 12 from what was recorded in the official canvass of votes by the Scott County Board of Supervisors.

“This discrepancy in results means no one can have confidence in the recount of absentee ballots in Scott County,” Miller-Meeks campaign spokesman Eric Woolson said in a statement. “A recount that cannot even get the total number of ballots correct cannot be trusted.”

Miller-Meeks now holds a razor-thin, 38-vote lead out of more than 394,400 votes cast in the race, according to unofficial results posted on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website as of Monday morning. The Iowa state senator from Ottumwa was ahead by 47 votes earlier last week. The new vote totals reflect unofficial results submitted by 13 out of the 24 counties in the district that have completed their recounts, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Those results do not include Scott County, where Democrat Rita Hart picked up a net 30 more votes than Miller-Meeks in the county recount, which wrapped up Saturday evening, according to representatives from both campaigns.

During Monday’s Iowa Executive Council meeting, Secretary of State Paul Pate said a couple of counties (Jefferson, Mahaska and Henry) in Iowa’s 2nd District are working on their recounts Monday, but he doesn’t know if that will be the end of it. He said there was a “question whether Scott County and Johnson County will certify what they have or whether they will have attorneys involved because there are some technical challenges that they’re having.”

Pate said the issues did not involve his office but were focused at the county level.

“The goal is that we have to have it certified by Monday (Nov. 30) at 3 o’clock,” he said.

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The Iowa Executive Council, in its role as the Iowa Board of Canvass, is slated to meet at 3 p.m. next Monday to certify statewide election results.

The council is made up of Pate, Gov. Kim Reynolds, State Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, State Auditor Rob Sand and State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign claims the Scott County recount board — consisting of one representative selected by each campaign and a third mutually chosen representative — used an “illegal ‘hybrid’ model” for recounting votes.

Iowa law requires a recount in each precinct to be conducted either by optical-scan ballot tabulating equipment or by a hand count.

Recount boards were conducting both machine and hand recounts of ballots cast in Scott and Johnson counties, using machines to separate and then hand recount ballots the machine had trouble reading.

Hart’s campaign argued some counties and recount boards had interpreted guidance from the Secretary of State to mean they cannot apply the law’s voter intent standards to any ballots in a precinct where a machine recount is being conducted, unless the board conducts a full hand recount of all the ballots in that same precinct.

With absentee ballots treated as a single precinct and some 60,000 absentee ballots in Scott County, the recount board said doing a hand count of that many ballots is impossible, given the time frame required by state law to complete the recount. Counties have 18 calendar days from their canvass of votes to complete their recounts, which would be Nov. 27 or 28, depending on when they canvass.

According to the Hart campaign, there were more than 200 identified overvotes and 18,000 undervotes in the district that had yet to be examined for voter intent as of the middle of last week. More than 7,000 of those undervotes were in Scott and Johnson counties alone. Hart’s campaign worried if recount boards could not use this hybrid approach of machine and hand recounts, that ballots containing valid votes for the candidates would not be detected with just a machine recount. And that there are enough ballots at stake to decide the outcome of the election.

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The Secretary of State’s Office last week tried to provide better guidance, stating a machine recount will provide a tally report that includes the number of overvotes or undervotes in a precinct. The recount board then can decide whether to review that precinct’s ballots by hand to determine whether the overvoted or undervoted ballots show clear voter intent for a candidate in the race.

However, “Ultimately, the manner in which a recount board handles the mechanics of a recount is left up to the discretion of a majority of the board,” Molly Widen, legal counsel for the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, wrote in response to a Hart campaign letter seeking clarification.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign accuses the Hart campaign of “doing its best to distort and manipulate the process.”

Hart for Iowa campaign manager Zach Meunier contends the bipartisan recount was “conducted fairly and thoroughly.”

“Each individual county recount has made decisions by a majority of the three-person recount board and, in Scott County specifically, this fair and lawful process was agreed to by the board more than five days ago,” Meunier said in a statement. “The Miller-Meeks campaign had no complaints during those five days, and is only now questioning the recount process as they lose ground.”

Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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