IA-02 Margin May Dwindle To Single Digits; Not All Recounts Finished

The race between Democrat Rita Hart and Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks may come down to single digits as Iowans and politics watchers across the country wait for counties to certify their recount results in the closest U.S. House race in the country.

The margin between the 2nd Congressional District candidates has narrowed considerably since election night when Miller-Meeks held a 282-vote lead over Hart. Before the recount began, the Republican’s lead was reduced to 47 after additional mail-in and provisional ballots were counted, and two counties with major precinct reporting errors were corrected.

As of Wednesday morning, Miller-Meeks leads Hart by 35 votes, 196,880 to 196,845, according to unofficial results from the Iowa secretary of state’s office.

The Associated Press has not declared a winner in the 2nd District, where Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack is retiring, because of the ultra-tight margin.

Though Democrats will still control the U.S. House when the new Congress convenes in January, the size of their majority is at stake. According to The Washington Post, five House races, including Iowa’s 2nd District contest, still need to be called. If Democrats do not win any of those races, they will have 222 seats, only four above the margin for a majority. If Hart does not win here, 3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne will be the only Democrat in Iowa’s federal delegation.

The Hart campaign expects their candidate to pick up double-digit votes in Scott County, the district’s largest, but the final tally of votes will not be known there until Monday morning when the Scott County Board of Supervisors meets to certify the results of the recount. According to the Quad-City Times, the recount certification was rescheduled from Wednesday afternoon to 9 a.m. Monday after the recount board’s absentee vote total showed 131 more ballots than the county initially canvassed earlier this month.

Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker said Tuesday the recount board had about 6,000 votes left to count and will reconvene Saturday. Hart is expected to net at least one vote in her home county based on the results of votes that have been recounted so far.

In Jasper County, the Hart campaign says it will net nine votes there, but the county auditor on Tuesday said the recount board had not finished and it was too soon to know the final tally. The Miller-Meeks campaign has also questioned the accuracy of the machine recount after the vote tabulating machine broke down shortly after the recount began. The machine was repaired, but the campaign does not believe the results were tabulated reliably.

If Hart nets 26 votes in Scott County as the campaign expects, picks up nine in Jasper and one in Clinton, that would give the Democrat a one vote lead. That’s a lot of question marks, however, and we will not know for certain until the counties certify their recount results and the Iowa Executive Council certifies the results statewide on Monday.

If the race ends in a tie, according to the secretary of state’s office, a candidate’s name is drawn from a hat.

In Scott County, the Miller-Meeks campaign recently has raised an issue with how the recount board (comprised of individuals appointed by each campaign and an individual jointly chosen) processed roughly 90,000 votes cast in the 2nd District contest.

The point of contention boils down to how to analyze under votes and over votes for voter intent.

An under vote occurs when a voter fails to cast a vote in a specific race and an over vote occurs when an individual casts too many votes in a race. If a voter fails to mark a ballot in the correct manner and makes erroneous marks, such as crossing out a bubble and filling in the other, the ballot tabulating machine may register that as an over vote or under vote.

The three-member recount board in Scott County voted to conduct a machine-assisted hand count, meaning ballots will first be counted by machine and then, as necessary, analyzed by the recount board for voter intent if it is determined that an under vote or over vote can be accurately interpreted.

The Miller-Meeks campaign has asserted it is illegal to utilize a machine count and a hand count during the recount process. But in a Nov. 19 letter, the secretary of state’s legal counsel tells the Hart campaign attorney that a machine-assisted hand count is considered a type of hand count.

Attorney Molly Widen writes: “If the recount board conducts a machine recount, they will receive a tally report that includes the number of overvotes or undervotes for the race at issue. The recount board may decide to review a precinct’s ballots to discover whether the overvoted or undervoted ballots show clear voter intent for a candidate in the race at issue. This type of review is a hand count.”

“Ultimately,” Widen said, “the manner in which a recount board handles the mechanics of a recount is left up to the discretion of a majority of the board.”

The confusion stems from a Nov. 17 email from Widen to county auditors in the district. In the email, Widen says a recount board cannot conduct a hand recount of only the under votes and over votes in a county, prompting the Miller-Meeks campaign to say the machine-assisted hand count in Scott County is improper.

In her letter two days later to the Hart campaign, Widen clarifies that guidance, stating that her office was asked “whether a recount board may count only the undervotes and overvotes in a given precinct.”

“The answer to this, of course, is no,” Widen said. “The recount board is required to count all of the votes for the office in question that were tabulated on Election Day.”

In her response, Widen cites a section of Iowa Code stating “the recount board may request that the ballots be recounted by machine … by hand, or may do both.”

Johnson and Clinton counties also conducted machine-assisted hand counts to help sort through the under votes and over votes.

After Election Day, the first significant shift in votes came Nov. 6 when Hart took a 162-vote lead due to an election night reporting error discovered in Jasper County. As a result of the error, Secretary of State Paul Pate requested a countywide recount of ballots cast in Jasper County. The board of supervisors agreed, and the countywide recount was conducted Nov. 7.

By Nov. 10, Miller-Meeks had regained the lead due to another election night reporting error, this time in Lucas County. Again, Pate requested a countywide recount, the board of supervisors obliged, and the recount occurred Nov. 12.

As ballots were being counted on Nov. 12 at the Lucas County courthouse, the Hart campaign announced its intention to request a recount of all ballots cast for the 2nd District contest in 24 counties across southeast and eastern Iowa. If a campaign requests a recount, a county must oblige and a recount board will be assembled.

When the recounts began last week, Miller-Meeks held a 47-vote lead out of more than 394,000 votes cast in the 2nd District race.

As recount boards finished counting ballots and submitted updated vote totals to the secretary of state’s office, the districtwide margin started to tick down.

On Monday morning, according to unofficial results recorded by the secretary of state’s office, Miller-Meeks’ lead was down to 38 votes. Hart was able to make up ground because of the net 10 votes she gained from Muscatine County’s recount.

On Tuesday afternoon, Miller-Meeks’ lead stretched to 41 votes after she gained a net five votes in conservative Henry County. In the Democratic stronghold of Johnson County, Hart netted only three votes on Tuesday.

Results are not final until the Iowa Executive Council, serving as the Iowa Board of Canvass, meets 3 p.m. Monday to certify the election results statewide. The executive council is made up of the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, secretary of agriculture and auditor.

Here is a look at how vote totals have changed since Nov. 11, the day after counties were required to have completed their initial canvass of votes cast in the Nov. 3 general election. You can see Starting Line’s full spreadsheet here.

Hart Changes Since 11/11

Appanoose: No change

Cedar: No change

Clarke: +2

Clinton: ?

Davis: +1

Decatur: +2

Des Moines: +3

Henry: No change

Jasper: ?

Jefferson: +1

Johnson: +5

Keokuk: +1

Lee: No change

Louisa: No change

Lucas: No change

Mahaska: +2

Marion: No change

Monroe: +1

Muscatine: +12

Scott: ?

Van Buren: No change

Wapello: No change

Washington: No change

Wayne: No change

Miller-Meeks Changes Since 11/11

Appanoose: +2

Cedar: No change

Clarke: +1

Clinton: ?

Davis: No change

Decatur: +2

Des Moines: +2

Henry: +5

Jasper: ?

Jefferson: -1

Johnson: +2

Keokuk: +1

Lee: No change

Louisa: +2

Lucas: No change

Mahaska: No change

Marion: -1

Monroe: +1

Muscatine: +2

Scott: ?

Van Buren: No change

Wapello: No change

Washington: No change

Wayne: No change

 

By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 11/25/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

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