Recount Drama in U.S. House Race as Iowa Candidates Near a Tie

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -

The historically close race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District seat could be approaching a tie.

Democrat Rita Hart has cut Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ lead to 35 votes out of more than 394,400 cast, with all but three of the district’s 24 counties reporting the results of their recounts.

The race is the closest in the nation, and both sides expect it to tighten further as Scott, Jasper and Clinton counties finish their recounts in the coming days. A single-digit victory for either candidate is possible as is a tie, which according to state law would result in a winner’s name being drawn from a hat, bowl or some other receptacle.

Hart expects to net 26 votes in Scott County if the tentative results from its recount board are certified. Her campaign says it also expects to net nine votes in Jasper County, where the recount board was set to meet Wednesday afternoon to finalize its work.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign hopes those gains will turn out to be illusory and disappear once anomalies in both counties are addressed. But if they stand they would tie the race with only Clinton County — where Hart lives on a Wheatland farm and served as an educator and state senator — yet to report.

Clinton’s recount board has already reviewed most of its ballots, with Hart so far netting a single vote, said county auditor Eric Van Lancker. The board will return Saturday morning to finish recounting the last 5,000 or so absentee ballots, he said.

A state canvassing board is expected to meet Monday, the legal deadline, to certify the results of the race. Legal action brought by the losing candidate could follow.

The outcome will help determine the size of the Democrats’ slim majority in the House of Representatives and whether Republicans flip a second Iowa seat held by Democrat Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring after seven terms.

Hart requested a districtwide recount after counties’ initial certifications showed her trailing by 47 votes, following an election in which reporting errors flipped the lead back and forth between the candidates.

The recount has been slow but drama-filled as the race has tightened. As of Wednesday, Miller-Meeks has 196,880 votes, Hart has 196,845. That’s 49.91% to 49.91%, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

Scott County, the most populous in the district, had been set to certify the 26-vote swing Wednesday that would help Hart erase most of Miller-Meeks’ lead. But the county board postponed the meeting late Tuesday after the auditor discovered the recount recorded 131 more absentee ballots than the earlier canvass, said board chairman Tony Knobbe.

The county’s recount board reconvened Wednesday to determine whether and how to address the discrepancy, which could be the result of a machine or math error, or the discovery of ballots that were uncounted on election night. It adjourned without taking action, while awaiting guidance from the county attorney.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign has already argued that the process used in Scott County to recount the votes was illegal. It entailed using a machine to recount the ballots, and then examining by hand those that the machine could not read to determine voter intent.

Miller-Meeks’ representatives argue that under Iowa law, recounts must be either done by machine or hand, not a combination of the two. Hart’s campaign notes that the process has been approved by the recount board, which includes representatives of both campaigns and one neutral person, and is backed by a Scott County legal opinion.

In Jasper County, a ballot tabulating machine broke down during the recount and had to be repaired, said county auditor Dennis Parrott. Miller-Meeks’ campaign has charged without evidence that, once repaired, the machine could not reliably read ballots and disputed the count after Hart gained ground.

Jasper County had previously conducted a machine recount of its ballots after the discovery of a reporting error that flipped the lead to Hart. Miller-Meeks campaign noted that an earlier machine recount matched the earlier corrected results. Hart’s campaign accused its rival of unfairly seeking a do-over.

Jasper County’s recount board was expected to meet Wednesday afternoon to determine how to move forward. And then the attention will turn to Clinton, where the auditor said the recount board will convene Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and work for hours.

“To draw a U.S. congressperson out of a coffee cup, I don’t know about that one, right? But we have these rules. If we come up with a tie, we’ve got the tiebreaker,” Van Lancker said. “I’m confident because of the processes that we have, we’re going to get to a result that we can be confident in.”