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Outstanding Ballots Could Change Razor-Thin Margin In Iowa's 2nd Congressional District

County auditors will continue to county absentee ballots that arrive by Nov. 9 at noon, as long as they were postmarked before Election Day. In close races, those ballots could prove decisive.
Grant Gerlock
IPR file
County auditors will continue to county absentee ballots that arrive by Nov. 9 at noon, as long as they were postmarked before Election Day. In close races, those ballots could prove decisive.

Absentee ballots are continuing to arrive in Iowa county auditors’ offices this week and can still be counted, as long as they were postmarked before Election Day. Those ballots could be decisive in one of the state’s closest and most high-profile races, the contest for the 2ndCongressional District.

The neck and neck race is southeast Iowa is not over yet, as late-arriving mail-in ballots continue to trickle in.

Preliminary election night results from the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office show that Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart by just 282 votes in the race for the open seat.

But that margin will almost certainly change.

State data from Thursday shows there are some 12,300 absentee ballots still outstanding in the district, having been sent to voters but not yet received by election officials.

Under state law, those votes can still be counted up until Monday Nov. 9 at noon, as long as they entered the mail system before Election Day.

Not all of those ballots are expected to be returned. But with a margin of fewer than 300 votes, how many arrive in time could prove decisive.

The AP has said it won’t call seven races in Iowa until after next Monday’s deadline for absentee ballots: six statehouse races and the 2ndCongressional District, which had been rated a toss-up.

Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker says as those ballots arrive, local election officials use a mail tracking system to verify if they were postmarked before Election Day.

“What we do is we go into our U.S. postal system informed visibility program, which will find the barcode that we put on the envelopes and we can find out when they entered the mail stream,” Van Lancker said. “If we can find out that the voter…put the absentee ballot in the mail the 2nd or before, then we can still go ahead and count that ballot.”

Campaigns wait for final ballots

The 2nd Congressional District had long been considered the state’s most reliably Democratic under the tenure of Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring.

That conventional wisdom was challenged in 2016 when southeast Iowa voters showed their independent streak, electing President Donald Trump by a four point margin, while granting Loebsack another term.

Now, preliminary results show that Miller-Meeks was able to flip rural swing counties that had helped Loebsack hold on to the seat, including Muscatine, Des Moines and Lee Counties. She also ran up the margins significantly in left-leaning high population areas like Scott and Clinton Counties.

Hart carried just four of the district’s 24 counties, Scott, Johnson, Clinton and Jefferson.

Hart’s campaign has noted the tallying of any outstanding ballots is a usual part of the election process as outlined under state law.

“Ballots are outstanding and over the coming days we will ensure that Iowans’ voices are heard and that remaining votes are counted,” reads a written statement from Hart campaign manager Zach Meunier. “Iowa election law is incredibly clear that absentee ballots postmarked by the day before the election and received by a county auditor by November 9, 2020 must be counted.”

Miller-Meeks campaign meanwhile has said it's confident her lead will hold, even as any final votes are tallied.

“The official canvass will not take place until Monday and Tuesday when the 24 county election boards meet across the congressional district. Our campaign has received and tallied votes from every county auditor, double checked those totals and compared them with the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. We are confident Dr. Miller-Meeks’ winning margin will stand,” reads a statement from the Miller-Meeks campaign. “Questions about a recount are premature until county officials conduct their official canvasses next week.”

The potential for a recount

There are no automatic recounts under state law, but every candidate is entitled to request one. Whether they have to post a bond to do so depends on the margin between the candidates in the race.

Additionally, recounts are conducted on a county by county basis. A recount across all of the 2nd Congressional District’s 24 counties would require individual requests to each county.

Candidates have three days after the county canvass of votes to file for a recount. Those canvasses are slated to take place next Monday and Tuesday.

Van Lancker, who has taught classes on recount procedure for the state’s county auditors, says that recounts in Iowa are not likely to significantly change the outcome.

“A recount is exactly that: it is a straight-up recount of the ballots that were cast. So there's no opportunity to not count a ballot, right? A ballot can’t be thrown out. If there were ballots that were rejected, those can't…those aren't considered,” Van Lancker said.

“What we typically see in a recount, we don't see a lot of movement off of the original canvass numbers,” he added.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter