A Republican candidate saw her vote lead dwindle to single digits Wednesday in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District as a dramatic recount moved toward a conclusion in a race that will help determine the size of Democrats' majority in the House of Representatives.
Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks held a lead of eight votes over Democrat Rita Hart out of more than 394,400 cast, with recount boards in all but one of the district’s 24 counties reporting their results. Miller-Meeks is trying to flip a second congressional seat in Iowa for Republicans this cycle.
Hart cut into Miller-Meeks' lead, which began Wednesday at 35 votes, but couldn't quite erase it.
She netted 26 votes in Scott County after the recount board adjourned without addressing a discrepancy in the number of absentee ballots recorded. On Wednesday night, her campaign picked up one more vote in Jasper County after a machine recount of absentee ballots reduced a nine-vote net the campaign had earlier claimed.
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Only Clinton County — where Hart lives on a Wheatland farm and served as an educator and state senator — is 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 to 6,000 absentee ballots, he said.
A state canvassing board is expected to meet Monday, the legal deadline, to certify the results of the race. The trailing candidate is likely to file legal action to contest the recount outcome, which would set in motion a proceeding run by a judicial panel.
If the candidates tie, state law would require that a winner’s name be drawn from a hat, bowl or some other receptacle.
The candidates are vying to replace 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.
After the swings on Wednesday, Miller-Meeks unofficially has 196,958 votes while Hart has 196,950.
Scott County, the most populous in the district, had been set to certify the 26-vote swing 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.
The county’s recount board reconvened Wednesday morning to determine whether and how to address the discrepancy, which could be the result of a machine or math error, mistakenly counting a box twice, or inadvertently discovering ballots that weren't tabulated on election night.
The board ultimately voted 2-1 to adjourn, rejecting the Miller-Meeks designee's request for a fresh machine recount of absentee ballots.
“The recount of absentee ballots in Scott County was unreliable,” said Miller-Meeks campaign attorney Alan Ostergren.
Hart campaign manger Zach Meunier said the “careful, thorough, bipartisan recount dramatically shrank the gap between the candidates.”
Compared to the county's earlier canvass, Hart added 105 votes and Miller-Meeks added 79.
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 Iowa law requires recounts to 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 alleged that, once repaired, the machine could not reliably read ballots and disputed the count after Hart gained nine votes.
The recount board brought in a new tabulating machine Wednesday afternoon to recount 10,999 absentee ballots that were in question, Parrott said. The recount resulted in Miller-Meeks losing a vote in the county and Hart's total staying the same.
It turns out the motherboard of the 6-year-old tabulating machine used previously was not reading the ballots correctly after technicians changed its cameras, he said.
Now the district's attention turns 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.”