Government

Judge orders post office to examine uncounted ballots in close Iowa House 55 race

"I voted" buttons lay in a bowl on the voting machine in Coralville, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/the Gazette)

DECORAH — Absentee ballots that lacked postmarks in the close Iowa House District 55 race will be reviewed by postal officials.

On Monday, District Court Judge Scott Beattie ordered the Winneshiek County Auditor to coordinate with the U.S. Postal Service to evaluate bar code information on 33 uncounted absentee ballots that arrived in the mail on or after Election Day.

The order came as the Iowa Secretary of State certified the results of the District 55 race, which pitted Democrat Kayla Koether against incumbent Republican Michael Bergan. Only nine votes separated the two, with Bergan ahead.

Koether can now contest the results to the Iowa House of Representatives.

She filed a legal challenge to the Nov. 6 election results centering on the 33 absentee ballots that weren’t postmarked.

Court records indicate the envelopes may have been too thick to run through the postmark machine.

The envelopes do contain a bar code on a lower edge, and Koether’s attorneys argue the mark could be deciphered by postal officials to determine when they were placed in the mail. They went on to opine that the codes could be reset after 30 to 45 days, making it imperative to have the post office read the data before it is lost.

Attorneys for the Iowa Secretary of State counter that the markings relate to discount mailing.

Beattie issued an injunction asking the Postal Service’s evaluation to be completed by Wednesday and provided to the court and the parties by Friday.

“It is clear to the court that the bar codes on the ballot envelopes contain some type of meaningful information that can be read by the Postal Service. ... At this juncture, the court only needs to determine it is possible that they are the bar codes referred to in the statute, and that information concerning when the ballots were placed in the mail could be lost if not evaluated by the Postal Service within the next several days,” Beattie wrote in his order.

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The ballots in question are to be marked with exhibit stickers and remain sealed, according to the order. A later hearing will determine whether the ballots will be counted.

“This ruling is good news for the 33 Iowans who cast their ballots in good faith and deserve to have their votes counted. ... This is just the next step in making certain that every legal vote gets counted,” Koether said.

Judge Beattie also denied Koether’s motion to issue an injunction to delay certification of the House District 55 election. The judge ruled that she could delay the certification by filing a notice of contest.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said the election results have been certified on Monday.

“Iowa Code is clear on this matter. Absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day and do not contain postmarks, nor a county-specific Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB), are not eligible to be counted … IMB tracing is a system in which the county auditor prints a unique IM bar code on each return absentee envelope, which allows tracking through the U.S. Postal Service. Iowa law authorizes IMB tracing as an option for counties, but it is not a requirement. The system is in use in six Iowa counties. Winneshiek County is not one of those,” Pate said.

According to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, election results can be contested to the Iowa House of Representatives in the next 20 days.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, nine legislative races were decided by 500 votes or less, with the House 55 race being the closest. House District 82 was decided by 37 votes.

Total statewide voter turnout was 1,334,279, which set a state record for a midterm election.

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