State Democratic lawmakers plan to push forward a bipartisan proposal to reform Iowa's election recount process in the wake of issues that arose in Iowa’s historically close U.S. House race, which is still being challenged in Congress.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they will not wade into the issue until after the U.S. House resolves the disputed outcome in southeast Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.
"We're going to let the process play out in the (U.S.) House" before taking up or passing any proposed election reforms, said Davenport Republican state Sen. Roby Smith, chairman the Iowa Senate State Government Committee responsible for advancing such bills. "We can look at it this year and pass it next year, before the general election in 2022."
Wilton Republican state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, chairman of the House State Government Committee, echoed Smith.
Democrats, however, say they're hopeful to get a bipartisan proposal passed yet this session that both parties can support.
"I'd like us to be able to have a discussion about that and to have some give and take about what should be in that law," said Iowa City Democrat state Rep. Mary Mascher, ranking member of the House State Government Committee. "We definitely know there should be changes made to our current law. ... And I am hopeful that we can get that accomplished this session."
Mascher and state Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Democrats were in the process of finalizing proposed legislation.
"Obviously, recounts can happen in any election, and we often have special elections in the interim," Mascher said. "And so it makes sense for us to get something accomplished as soon as we can. And I do believe that is possible and something I will be working toward in terms of getting it resolved this session."
Mascher said Democrats' proposal seeks to provide more time, more assistance and more uniformity in the recount process, by increasing the number of people allowed to conduct recounts in each county and requiring uniform hand recounts.
U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was provisionally sworn in as a new member of Congress last month after state officials certified the election results. Democrat Rita Hart has asked the Democratically-controlled U.S. House to investigate and overturn the race that state officials say she lost to Miller-Meeks by six votes following a district-wide recount in all 24 counties.
Hart and her attorneys claim 22 ballots were legally cast but not counted in the results, including those cast by Scott County residents.
They also want the House to examine thousands of ballots marked by machines as undervotes and overvotes that weren't visually inspected during the recount.
Hart's campaign argues the recount process was marred by errors, discrepancies and inconsistencies in how ballots were examined from county to county, resulting in thousands of ballots with recorded under and over votes not being examined for voter intent. As a result, lawful votes were likely not counted, her attorney argues.
Miller-Meeks' attorney Alan Ostergren has blamed Hart's campaign for the inconsistent recount approach. Ostergren said the Miller-Meeks campaign pushed to have each county conduct a machine recount, which would have guaranteed more uniformity. But, the Hart campaign disagreed and pushed for some form of a hand recount in more populous, Democratic-leaning counties that favored Hart.
Iowa law provides broad discretion to recount boards to decide the mechanics of a recount. Some counties did complete hand recounts, some did complete machine recounts, and some, including Scott County, did a hybrid version of both.
"The law surrounding Iowa’s election recount process is drafted so poorly that multiple recount boards reading the same statutes arrived at entirely different conclusions as to what they were/were not allowed or required to do as far as the actual mechanics of the recount was concerned," Wolfe, who served at the Hart campaign's designee on the Clinton County recount board, wrote in a Quad-City Times guest column.
Wolfe added: "This is unacceptable — every Iowan who takes the time and makes the effort to cast a legal vote has a right to have that vote counted, regardless of the county in which they reside."
Mascher said Democrats have discussed increasing the number of recount board members, from three possibly up to a nine-member board, "to be able to speed up the process" of conducting hand recounts, particularly in larger, urban counties.
"We felt that that would be a way of ensuring the public that (recounts) were all being done the same, and that it could be done speedily," Mascher said.
Iowa law, too, states recount boards may consider only ballots considered on election night, even if the board is made aware of legally cast ballots excluded from the initial count.
Hart's campaign has identified 22 ballots it has claimed were legally cast but not counted, due to election worker error. Had the 22 ballots been tallied, Hart, of Wheatland, argues she would have won by nine votes.
Mascher said Democrats' proposal would push back the date counties are required to canvass the vote to allow inclusion of ballots that were cast on time, but may have been excluded from the county's official count.
"So we want to make sure that all votes are looked that. That all votes are considered and all votes are counted, if they were cast legitimately," Mascher said. "We want to make sure that the timelines work ... and make sure it, again, is adequate in being able to get the counts done."
The Iowa Secretary of State's office has had informal discussions with legislators about election procedures, according to a spokesman.
Ryan Dokter, Sioux County Auditor and current president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, said the group has drafted but not formally adopted proposed recommendations for changes in Iowa election law.
Dokter said the association, based on guidance from Republican leadership, was waiting for Congress to decide the outcome in Iowa's 2nd district election before presenting an official proposal to state lawmakers.
There is no deadline for the House to resolve Hart's election contest.
Miller-Meeks last week said House members were recently assigned to committees, which delayed the Committee on House Administration in organizing and reviewing Hart's petition and Miller-Meeks' motion to dismiss.