ELECTION 2020

Mariannette Miller-Meeks' lead increases a bit in Scott County recount

She picks up 3 votes, Rita Hart picks up 1, in nation's closest congressional race

Allison Wells, a Johnson County elections clerk, reads results from a precinct Wednesday to the recount board at the Joh
Allison Wells, a Johnson County elections clerk, reads results from a precinct Wednesday to the recount board at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City. Voters are being recounted in the 2nd Congressional District, where less than 50 votes separate the two candidates, Democrat Rita Hart and Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DAVENPORT — Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks saw her lead grow slightly Wednesday as more counties began the slow process of recounting, reviewing and examining ballots in Iowa’s closely contested and still uncalled 2nd Congressional District race.

A Scott County election official on Wednesday said the recount process in the state’s third-largest county will likely come down to the wire.

As of Wednesday morning, the three-member recount board chosen by both campaigns had reviewed about 10,000 out of 93,000-some ballots cast in Scott County.

“We will be here until the 28th,” Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz said Wednesday.

Johnson and Davis counties began their recounts Wednesday.

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 canvassed.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate on Tuesday said election officials will need amended results from counties by Nov. 30 in order to certify the general election results statewide and declare an official winner. The Associated Press also announced it will not call the race until then.

However, Hart’s campaign on Wednesday contended state law allows for a delay in state certification if there is a recount. The campaign pointed to a section of Iowa code that states: “If necessary, the state canvass required ... shall be delayed with respect to the office or the nomination to which the recount pertains.”

The campaign says state law allows county election administrators to tell the secretary of state about changes in outcome later than the Nov. 30 deadline and allows recounts to be fully completed rather than cut off arbitrarily.

That would not delay certifying results in other races, according to the campaign.

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The Scott County recount board reconvened Wednesday at 8 a.m. after having worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday sorting through and reviewing ballots.

Recount boards were conducting both machine and hand recounts of ballots cast in Scott and Johnson counties, using the machines to separate out ballots with under votes and over votes, spot-checking those ballots and hand-counting select precincts.

According to unofficial results, Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa still held a narrow 47-vote lead over Democratic former state senator Rita Hart of Wheatland out of the more than 394,000 votes cast in the race.

However, as of Wednesday afternoon, Miller-Meeks picked up a net of three votes in Scott County, while Hart netted one additional vote, according to the campaigns, after the recount board reviewed ballots with stray marks or smudges that tabulation machines counted as an over-vote, but where the recount board determined the voter’s intent was clear.

Updated tallies from other counties were not readily available Wednesday.

The tabulation machines are so sensitive, that a “hesitation mark” such as a dot in a voting oval for a candidate they ultimately chose not to vote for is considered a valid mark and counted, leading to an over vote in the race, said Alan Ostergren, an attorney for the Miller-Meeks’ campaign who has been observing the recount.

“All the machine tabulation of votes were 100 percent correct” compared to election night, Ostergren said.

Some counties and recount boards have interpreted guidance from the secretary of state to mean they cannot apply the voter intent standard 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.

“This is significant because of the unusually large number of absentee ballots in this election,” which the counties generally treat as a single precinct, “and because of the likelihood that these ballots contain valid votes for the candidates which a machine recount will not detect,” according to the Hart campaign.

Auditors are seeking clarification on that point.

Hart has requested a recount in all 24 counties in the southeastern Iowa district.

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During the last two weeks, the race has seesawed back and forth by slim margins between the two candidates due to reporting errors discovered in precincts in Jasper and Lucas counties.

Miller-Meeks has claimed victory, and both candidates were in Washington, D.C., last week to participate in orientation for new members of Congress.

“This is the closest federal race in the country and, as we’ve seen since Election Day, the vote totals in this race continue to fluctuate,” Hart campaign communications director Riley Kilburg said in a statement. “The recount boards in each county have just begun their work, and we fully expect the totals to continue to shift as we move further into this process.

“As we have said since the beginning, it is critical that we take the time to get this right and make sure the will of Iowa voters is heard.”

Pate, in a tweet sent Wednesday from Johnson County as he observed the recount there, called for patience.

“This is a slow process going through tens of thousands of ballots, but it’s done in an open, transparent & bipartisan manner to ensure the integrity of the vote,” the Iowa secretary of state tweeted.

At stake is the size of Democratic majority in the U.S. House, and whether Republicans will flip a second Iowa congressional seat this cycle and clinch a 3-to-1 majority of Iowa’s four congressional seats.

Miller-Meeks and Hart are vying to replace U.S. Rep. David Loebsack, a Democrat who is retiring after holding the seat for seven terms.

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