ELECTION 2020

Fact Checker: Did Mariannette Miller-Meeks seek to 'limit' the vote count?

Democratic congressional candidate Rita Hart speaks Sept. 26 during a meet-and-greet event in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta/Th
Democratic congressional candidate Rita Hart speaks Sept. 26 during a meet-and-greet event in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District has been the closest U.S. House race in decades, with only six votes separating the candidates.

Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was certified last week by the state canvassing board as the representative-elect after recounts across the Southeast Iowa district determined the slim lead.

But Democratic opponent Rita Hart announced Wednesday she plans to file a petition with a U.S. House committee to challenge that.

Graded a C

She previously contended that canvassing deadlines didn’t allow enough time to thoroughly review ballots. Last week, Hart campaign manager Zach Meunier issued a statement:

“Unfortunately, as this process continues, the Miller-Meeks campaign has sought to keep legitimate votes from being counted — pushing to disqualify and limit the number of Iowans whose votes are counted. … Moreover, under Iowa law, the recount was limited to the universe of ballots initially counted after Election Day.”

Analysis

We’ll separate this claim in two parts.

Claim 1: “The Miller-Meeks campaign has sought to keep legitimate votes from being counted — pushing to disqualify and limit the number of Iowans whose votes are counted.”

Riley Kilburg, Hart’s communications director, said in a statement to Fact Checker that while the Hart campaign “pushed for a mechanism to examine these ballots for voter intent within the time period allowed for the recount, the Miller-Meeks campaign argued against using such a method.”

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Hart requested a full districtwide recount after initial results showed her trailing by 47 votes after reporting errors — including human errors — caused the lead to flip back and forth between the candidates, the Associated Press reported.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign criticized the process of recounting votes in Scott County, where the recount board conducted a machine recount and then tallied ballots by hand that could not be read, according to reports by the Associated Press and the Quad City Times.

The Hart campaign did support this decision by the Scott County recount board, previously expressing concern about a machine’s ability to read stay marks or “hesitation marks” and determine the voter’s intended vote.

In these instances, ballots could be counted as undervotes or overvotes by machine, but voter intent in those cases might be more clear through a human review.

An overvote occurs when a voter casts a vote for more than the allowable number of candidates in a particular contest. An undervote occurs when a voter makes no selection in a particular race.

In responding to the Fact Checker’s request for sourcing, the Hart campaign alleged that an initial canvass of ballots in the 24-county district identified more than 200 overvotes and 18,000 undervotes that had “yet to be examined for voter intent.” More than 7,000 of these were in Johnson and Scott counties.

The campaign did not clarify how it obtained that information.

Legal counsel for the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office Molly Widen stated that “undervotes and overvotes are not ‘disregarded,’ but rather counted in accordance with state and federal optical scan tabulation standards,” the Quad City Times reported. According to Widen, a machine recount provides the tally of overvotes or undervotes in a precinct. It’s then up to the recount board to decide whether to review the precinct’s ballots by hand to determine whether the overvoted or undervoted ballots show clear voter intent.

The Miller-Meeks campaign did argue the combined recount process was not allowed under state law.

The Iowa Secretary of State has said the machine-assisted count was permissible, but Iowa Code leaves this discretion to the recount board, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.

Scott County did report a 26-vote gain for Hart, which the Board of Supervisors certified, shrinking the difference between the candidates to single digits.

The Fact Checker’s goal in examining this statement is not to determine whether any votes were not counted in this race, but rather to determine if there’s credibility to this statement.

Because the county recount board opted to recount votes using a hybrid method, the process is legal. Therefore, if the GOP campaign was attempting to stop this legal process, one could argue Miller-Meeks was attempting to suppress legitimate votes. It could also be argued that not analyzing undervotes and overvotes could “limit the number of Iowans whose votes are counted.”

However, it’s not clear that it was Miller-Meeks’ goal to “disqualify and limit the number of Iowans whose votes are counted.” Though the Fact Checker team cannot verify whether votes were left out in the final count, because the courts have not weighed-in on this issue, the allegation is strong enough that it should be taken into consideration for the grade.

Miller-Meeks campaign argued against the recount process, but made no effort to stop the recount from taking place. Because of that, we give this claim a D.

Next, onto the second claim: “Under Iowa law, the recount was limited to the universe of ballots initially counted after Election Day.”

Per state law, recount boards may consider only ballots considered on election night — even if the board is made aware of ballots excluded from the initial count, the Quad City Times reported.

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Iowa Code states that in the event of a recount, county recount boards “shall recount only the ballots which were voted and counted for the office in question.”

In Scott County, the Board of Supervisors discussed during a Nov. 30 meeting that the recount board tallied an additional 131 absentee ballots.

The board did not know the source of the discrepancy, which could have been a result of a machine counting error, an accidental double count or ballots that were not counted at all, according to the Associated Press.

The board certified the results regardless, and the discrepancy with the additional ballots would have to be addressed in an election contest.

Davenport lawyer Ian Russell, who is the Hart campaign’s representative on the Scott County recount board, told the Quad City Times that the statute is clear the recount board recounts the ballots and “doesn’t try to audit them and compare them.” If there is a discrepancy it must be resolved through the courts, he said.

This claim is true and earns an A.

Conclusion

The Miller-Meeks campaign did call a combined recount process using both machine and hand tallies illegal. However, because the courts have not weighed in on this issue, we cannot determine if there’s an impact on the number of votes counted if voter intent is not analyzed. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that Miller-Meeks questioning the legality of the recount process is an effort to stop the recount, as the Hart campaign’s claim seems to imply.

The Hart campaign’s statement in the second half of the claim — that a recount is limited to ballots counted from Election Day — is true. Combined, the claims earn a C overall.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm of The Gazette.

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