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.
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, which also sent a letter to the Iowa Secretary of State Wednesday requesting clarification on guidance issued by his office Tuesday to recount boards.
"Unlike states that utilize a significant number of government staff persons and/or civic volunteers to conduct recounts, Iowa law requires a three-person recount board to conduct the recount in each county, regardless of the county’s size or the number of ballots being recounted," the Hart campaign wrote. "Some of these all-volunteer boards are already diligently working to complete their recounts by November 30, 2020."
However, some counties and recount boards have interpreted guidance from the Secretary of State to mean they cannot apply the law’s voter intent standards 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, the campaign argued.
"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 campaign.
Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz had also asked for clarification from the Scott County Attorney's Office.
Scott County, like the rest of the country, saw record early voting due to the global pandemic, with about 65,000 absentee ballots casts, Moritz said.
Using back-of-the-envelope-math, Alan Ostergren, an attorney for the Miller-Meeks campaign, estimated it would take 270 hours for the recount board to do a full hand recount of all Scott County absentee ballots, assuming the board averages four ballots a minute.
More than 200 identified overvotes and 18,000 undervotes in the district had yet to be examined for voter intent, according to Hart's campaign. More than 7,000 of those undervotes are in Scott and Johnson counties alone.
An undervote occurs when a voter makes no selection in a particular race, or chooses fewer than the allowable number of candidates in a contest. An overvote occurs when a voter casts a vote for more than the allowable number of candidates.
Recount boards were conducting both machine and hand recounts of ballots cast in Scott and Johnson counties, using machines to separate ballots with overvotes and identifying the number of undervotes. Boards then spot-checked those ballots and conducted hand recounts in select precincts. In Scott County, the board used a high-speed scanner to separate ballots with overvotes from other ballots and hand reviewed those ballots while using the machines to tabulate other votes.
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 overvote in the race, but where the recount board determined the voter's intent was clear.
Updated tallies from other counties were not readily available Wednesday afternoon. However, Miller-Meeks' campaign said it picked up two more votes in Johnson County Wednesday after the recount board sorted through about 10,000 ballots.
Hart has requested a recount in all 24 counties in the southeastern Iowa district.
During the last two weeks, the race has see-sawed 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 it 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 Democrats' 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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