A razor-thin margin separating the Republican and Democrat candidates for an open southeast Iowa congressional seat continues to narrow as counties complete their recount of votes in what could become a single-digit race.
Republican State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks held a slim, 37-vote lead out or more than 394,400 votes cast in the Iowa 2nd congressional district race as of Tuesday evening, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's Office.
Miller-Meeks, of Ottumwa, had led Democrat Rita Hart, of Wheatland, by 47 votes in unofficial results before recounts began last week in what has become the closest federal race in the country.
Only one of the four counties Hart carried had reported new totals, where she netted three votes more than Miller-Meeks in heavily Democratic Johnson County. Scott, Clinton and Jefferson counties had yet to complete their recounts
Hart had netted 30 votes in Scott County after the recount board wrapped up its counting on Saturday evening of absentee votes, according to representatives from both campaigns. However, the board reconvened Tuesday afternoon to recount a single Davenport precinct after a tabulation error was found and corrected, and submitted its report to the Scott County Auditor. Overall, Hart picked up a net of 26 votes over Miller-Meeks in Scott County, who picked up four votes from election day ballots, according to an attorney for her campaign.
The Scott County Board of Supervisors was to meet Wednesday to receive the recount board's report and consider certifying the results. However, the meeting has been postponed to Monday after the recount board's absentee ballot totals showed 131 more ballots than recorded in the county's canvass of votes, according to a county supervisor and another individual with direct knowledge of the recount results who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Both sources say Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz has requested the three-member recount board reconvene Wednesday to address the discrepancy. Whether it will was unknown. Moritz did not return messages seeking comment.
Miller-Meeks campaign, in a statement late Wednesday, said postponing the board of supervisors meeting was "appropriate."
“No election results should be submitted to the Secretary of State until the proper procedures have been followed to verify their accuracy,” Miller-Meeks for Congress attorney Alan Ostergren said in an emailed statement.
Miller-Meeks' campaign over the weekend criticized the process used by the Scott County recount board, arguing it is not allowed under state law and cannot be trusted.
That process involved conducting a machine recount, and then recounting ballots by hand that could not be read. Miller-Meeks' campaign argues that Iowa law requires either a machine or a hand recount, not a combination.
Miller-Meeks' campaign also argues that there "is no way to audit the work of the recount board using the hybrid methods to verify it's accuracy," and alleges the board's tally of absentee votes is off by 12 from the county's official canvass of votes.
"I have yet to hear a plausible explanation" of how Rita Hart can pick up "plus-26 votes in Scott County, but only plus-three" votes in heavily Democratic Johnson County, Ostergren told the Quad-City Times. "The results are wildly out of step with elsewhere in the district," where each candidate has picked up a few votes here and there.
Hart's campaign argues that the recount boards — which include one representative from each campaign and one neutral member — have discretion to decide how to proceed. Hart's campaign, too, contends the bipartisan recount was "conducted fairly and thoroughly," with input from the Secretary of State's and Scott County Attorney's offices. The latter of which issued an opinion stating the hybrid recount method was permissible.
Ostergren, too, said discrepancies were reported in Muscatine County, where the recount board tallied six more absentee ballots than were certified in the canvass of votes by county officials.
On Tuesday, Hart's campaign chastised the Miller-Meeks campaign for also disputing the final recount proceedings in Jasper County, where a tabulator machine broke down shortly after the recount began.
According to the Hart campaign, Miller-Meeks’ campaign’s designee insisted on waiting for the machine to be repaired, which the three-member recount board agreed to do. After the machine recount of the absentee ballots was completed, Hart netted nine votes, according to her campaign.
"Unfortunately, as is quickly becoming a pattern across multiple counties including Scott County, the Miller-Meeks Campaign is unwilling to play by the rules they sought at the beginning of the recount, and now disputes the machine recount that was conducted at their urging," Hart for Iowa Campaign Manager Zach Meunier said in a statement.
Miller-Meeks' campaign contends that when the technician replaced the broken parts, the machine could not read the ballots reliably.
"The Miller-Meeks for Congress campaign is committed to integrity in the recount process," Woolson said. "The law must be followed and broken vote-counting machines should be properly fixed before they are used."
The amended vote totals from Jasper County were not reflected in the unofficial results reported Tuesday on the Iowa Secretary of State's website. Combined with Scott and Clinton counties, that would shrink Miller-Meeks' lead to a few votes.
Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott, however, stressed any reported amended vote tally was "premature." He said the recount board had not finished counting all ballots and was to reconvene Wednesday.
Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker said Hart had netted one vote over Miller-Meeks, but that the recount board still had about 5,000 to 6,000 absentee votes yet to count, and would not reconvene until Saturday due to scheduling conflicts.
Van Lancker said he expected the recount board to complete counting all of the outstanding absentee ballots on Saturday.
A total of 20 out of 24 counties in the district had completed their recounts as of Tuesday evening, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The Iowa Executive Council, in its role as the Iowa Board of Canvass, is slated to meet at 3 p.m. next Monday to certify statewide 2020 election results.
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.
No Iowa congressional race has been so close and led to a recount in more than a century, said Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The tightest Iowa congressional race to come close was the 1916 election of Republican George C. Scott, who won by four votes over Democrat T.J. Steele to represent Iowa's then 11th congressional district after a series of recounts. Since then, only three state congressional races have come within 500 votes.
Both campaigns have continued to solicit donations for recount funds to continue to pay campaign staff and observers in all 24 counties during the district-wide recount.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel recently tweeted asking for donations to Miller-Meeks' recount fund, to "help take the fight to Nancy Pelosi," and that "Democrats are doing whatever they can to block her victory."
Because the margin of victory separating candidates is less than 1% of the total number of votes cast the state will pay the cost for a recount.
"It shouldn't be that much, because recount boards aren't paid and are a volunteer position," Iowa Secretary of State's Office spokesman Kevin Hall said.
He said individual county auditors will have a better idea of the cost of having election officials supervise and assist recount boards, for which they would reimbursed.
"We think the cost should be fairly minimal," Hall said.
As for the likelihood that the race will end up in court, Miller-Meeks' campaign said it is "committed to seeing the recount process through in each of the district's 24 counties. Speculating on the need for legal action is premature."
Hart's campaign did not respond to similar questions as of press deadline.