In a Northeast Iowa legislative race where only nine votes unofficially separate winner from loser, a trove of 31 mail-in ballots will not be counted because none have postmarks, election officials said Tuesday.
In Iowa House District 55, which includes parts of Winneshiek, Fayette and Clayton counties, incumbent Republican state Rep. Michael Bergan leads Democratic challenger Kayla Koether by the tiny margin.
The ultimate outcome will not change the party in control of the Iowa House, where Republicans maintained the upper hand in last Tuesday’s elections. But it could bolster the inroads Democrats made in the chamber, flipping five seats so far.
The contest was among the key races to watch this season as Iowa Democrats tried — but failed — to flip 10 seats in the Iowa House to gain at least one lever of control over the state lawmaking agenda. Barack Obama won the district by nearly 12 points in 2012 and Donald Trump by more than 7 points in 2016.
The additional ballots now in question were processed in Waterloo, but never postmarked. And, election officials say, that’s not unusual.
“We have ballots that don’t get counted every year because they aren’t postmarked,” said Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines.
“There’s always ballots you can’t count,” agreed Fayette County Auditor Lori Moeller.
That’s because not all mail automatically gets postmarked — so voters cannot assume the ballots they drop in a mailbox will get postmarked.
The envelopes sent to voters containing absentee ballots bear a warning that postmarks are not guaranteed, said Dawn Williams, director of elections for the Iowa Secretary of State.
“The law is very clear. An absentee ballot, in order to be counted, must be received by the county auditor by 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day, or postmarked the day before the election and received by noon on the Monday following,” Williams said. “That postmark has to be legible.”
Koether’s campaign is considering a lawsuit seeking to have the ballots without postmarks counted, said John Hall, a volunteer with her campaign.
But Bergan said he has faith in the process. “I’m confident in our electoral system and how it’s managed. We’ll get a result once the count is in.”
Election officials said last week that an estimated 200 absentee ballots in the district could have been postmarked before the election but not received until after the unofficial results were posted.
A recount can be requested by the candidates three days after counties officially canvass election results.
That will be 5 p.m. Friday in Winneshiek and Fayette counties, which canvassed Tuesday, and 5 p.m. Monday in Clayton County, which will canvas Wednesday.
Neither candidate has said he or she would request a recount.