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Iowa House Republicans Vote To Reject 29 Mail-In Ballots In Close Statehouse Race

kayla koether
John Pemble/IPR
Kayla Koether, House District 55 Democratic candidate in the 2018 election, speaks at a news conference along with supporters at the Iowa Capitol Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives voted Monday night to not count 29 mail-in ballots in a close northeast Iowa statehouse race.

The 53-42 party-line vote approved a report saying the Iowa House does not have the legal authority to open and count the ballots, and upheld Republican incumbent Rep. Michael Bergan’s, R-Dorchester, win by nine votes over a Democratic challenger in House District 55.

House Democrats and former Democratic candidate Kayla Koether say because the Winneshiek County auditor testified the 29 ballots were mailed on time, those 29 voters have been disenfranchised.

“Myself and my fellow northeast Iowans have been disappointed by a process that failed these voters,” Koether said.

One of the 29 voters said during a news conference Monday afternoon that his mother mailed his absentee ballot, on time, because he was recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Liam Alexander Murphy of Decorah said facing a life-or-death situation made his vote feel like “an extension of his personhood.”

Then Murphy received a letter from the Winneshiek County auditor saying his vote wasn’t counted.

“When it was negated, even though it was valid and I had followed every rule and protocol, I felt like they were making me a non-person ahead of time,” Murphy said.

After a judge said the Iowa House has the authority to handle the contested election, and after a series of special statehouse committee meetings in recent weeks to discuss the issue, Republicans on the committee voted last Wednesday in a 3-2 party-line vote to recommend that the House not open and count the 29 ballots.

On Monday night, more than a dozen Democrats got up to urge House members to reject that recommendation, and many slammed Republicans for refusing to allow witnesses to testify before the contested election committee.

But the debate came down to a disagreement over the definition of “intelligent mail barcode.”

“Let’s interpret that code section in a way that embraces the constitution, that supports the rights of these people to vote,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, who chaired the election contest committee, was the only Republican to voluntarily speak during Monday’s debate. He said the ballots can’t be counted because they did not have a postmark or an “intelligent mail barcode” (as defined in Iowa Code and administrative rules), to indicate if they had been sent on time.

“Nobody was punished when we followed the rule of law,” Holt said. “In fact, we are protecting the integrity of the system.”

Koether said before debate Monday that if the House decided to not count the ballots, she would “seek whatever redress we can get for those voters.” A lawsuit is possible.

After debate ended Monday night, Bergan, who recused himself from the vote, said he’s relieved and he doesn’t think this casts a shadow over his election.

“We went through the election process, followed the rules consistently through the process,” Bergan said. “I think it’s just a matter of coming to a resolution at this point.”

Bergan added Koether is his constituent, and he wants to be respectful and open to the concerns of Koether and her supporters.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter