2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Iowa House 55 challenger 'appalled' by decision not to count ballots

Kayla Koether (Supplied photo)
Kayla Koether (Supplied photo)

DES MOINES — An unsuccessful Northeast Iowa legislative candidate is dismayed over the process a House committee used to deny her appeal to count 29 mail-in absentee ballots that might reverse the election outcome.

“I’ve been appalled by a process that not only disenfranchised them the first time, but refused to hear their voices the second time,” Kayla Koether, Decorah Democrat, said Thursday after a special House Election Contest Committee voted 3-2 to recommend that the full House uphold Dorchester Republican Rep. Michael Bergan’s nine-vote victory in House District 55, which includes all or parts of Winneshiek, Fayette and Clayton counties.

“I expected this process to be conducted in good faith,” she said. “To not hear from the people directly impacted by this I think it was really a disservice to this process and leaves the voters in my district questioning the outcome.”

The committee of three Republicans and two Democrats heard from attorneys for Koether and Bergan, but not from witnesses, including any of the 29 voters whose absentee ballots were not counted.

The Republican position was that a mail-in absentee ballot cannot be counted unless it bears a traditional postmark or what Iowa law calls an intelligent mail bar code generated by an auditor’s office. The 29 ballots received by the Winneshiek County auditor had neither.

There is no “legal authority to open and count the 29 ballots in question” nor a right to “canvass or recertify the election,” they wrote. “The Winneshiek County auditor and the Secretary of State have acted in accordance with the law.”

But Koether and the committee’s Democrats argued that a postal service bar code — not the intelligent bar code outlined under the code — found the ballots had been mailed before the election deadline.

The full House, where Republicans have a 54-46 majority, is set to debate the issue Monday afternoon. House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said Bergan will recuse himself.

If the House votes to deny Koether’s challenge, she is likely to take the issue to court.

“I think a court of law would be a fairer place where these voters could have their voices heard, that the facts of the matter could come out so that we could all rest assured that there was a clear resolution and a fair one,” she said.

Democratic committee members Reps. Mary Wolfe of Clinton and Brian Meyer of Des Moines released a minority report calling for lawmakers “to grant Koether and the voters of House District 55 their constitutional rights and rights guaranteed in Iowa Code to open and count the ballots that have been legally cast.”

“Their votes remain uncounted due to two Republican elected officials: Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines and Secretary of State Paul Pate,” they wrote.

Upmeyer expressed disappointment the process became partisan, saying Meyer used Koether’s challenge for political purposes.

“I got to tell you, my blood pressure just went up,” she said. According to Upmeyer, she has been working on the matter with House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, since the first day of session.

“Any of the things he asked us to do, perhaps differently than I had laid out when I first contemplated this because there aren’t many rules around this process, we accommodated all of that,” Upmeyer said. “Rep. (Steve) Holt asked everybody to check their ‘R’ or ‘D’ at the door. Yet there’s only one person who couldn’t do that.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Radio Iowa contributed.

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