DES MOINES — Following historical precedent, Iowa House Republicans dismissed a Democratic challenge to the election of one of their members Monday to maintain their 54-46 majority.
The House had no legal authority to open and count 29 mail-in absentee ballots that may have changed the outcome of the House 55 election, they said in dismissing the challenge, 53-42. Incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Bergan of Dorchester was declared the winner by nine votes over Decorah Democratic challenger Kayla Koether.
“This committee cannot act in violation of the laws that governed the election,” Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said in explaining the election challenge committee’s recommending that the House dismiss Koether’s challenge.
However, in a minority report, Democrats said that because voting is a fundamental right, the 29 ballots in question should be counted.
“We have a legal and I would say a moral obligation to ensure that those rules and regulations are applied uniformly throughout the state,” Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said before the House voted 53-45 along party lines to reject Democrats’ minority report calling for the 29 ballots to be opened and counted. Bergan recused himself from both votes citing a House rule on conflicts of interest.
It’s likely the House vote is not the end of the controversy.
“We hope we will have people on both sides of the aisle joining us in asking that northeast Iowans’ votes be counted,” Koether said at a Statehouse news conference before the House debate Monday. She was flanked by more than a dozen voters, some whose votes were not counted. “If they don’t, then we will seek whatever redress we can get.”
Koether earlier challenged the outcome in Polk County District Court, but a judge ruled that the House was the correct venue to have her challenge heard.
Regardless of her next action, the decision was in keeping with the history of Iowa legislative election challenges. In three challenges going back to 1975, the majority party — Democrat and Republican — has voted to seat its candidate.
Wolfe told her colleagues that the administrative rule the Republican majority report relied on “is at the bottom in the hierarchy of the rules of law,” below the Constitution and statutes. The Constitution provides a “clear and affirmative, fundamental right to vote.”
“The only legal conclusion is to count every vote,” Wolfe said.
Holt agreed that voting is a fundamental right, but drew a different conclusion.
“Voting is a fundamental right,” he said, “and that is why in the United States we have rules and regulations to ensure that fundamental right is protected and guarded and people have faith in this system.”
He then listed several election-related rules used to “protect the integrity of that sacred right.”
“Our nation is a nation of laws, and the rule of law matters,” Holt said in encouraging the adoption of the committee report. “I believe democracy says we follow the rule of law particularly in a contested situation like this.”
Voters in Winneshiek County followed the rule of law “when they mailed their ballots in on time and did everything by the law to have their ballot valid and counted,” Koether said when asked about that argument.
“They are making a choice here of how to interpret the law and whether they will do so in a way that includes these 29 voters who want their votes counted,” she said. “They can follow the rule of law and count these ballots.”
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