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Jasper County Recount Affirms Preliminary Outcome In 2nd Congressional Race, Hart Maintains Lead In Unofficial Tally

Election workers in Jasper County conducted a county-wide recount after staffers detected a clerical error that gave a candidate extra votes in a very competitive congressional race. The race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District is still too close to call.
Kate Payne
Election workers in Jasper County conducted a county-wide recount after staffers detected a clerical error that gave a candidate extra votes in a very competitive congressional race. The race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District is still too close to call.

The results of a county-wide machine recount in Jasper County do not change the district-wide preliminary outcome in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which shows former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart leading Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks in the still-unofficial count. The contest remains too close to call and further reviews of the vote totals are still ahead, with the potential for legal action looming.

Some two dozen of election workers crowded into the Jasper County Emergency Operations Center on Saturday to feed the county’s Election Day ballots back into vote counting machines, as campaign staffers, attorneys, reporters and other observers looked on. At the county courthouse, other election workers conducted a machine recount of the county’s absentee ballots.

The same ballots counted on Election Day had been sealed and locked inside the machines. Workers unsealed them and fed them back in, per step-by-step instructions given by County Auditor Dennis Parrott. The tallied results were then printed on ticker tapes unspooling from the machines, to be tallied and checked.

The results from Saturday’s county-wide recount, which are still unofficial, show Miller-Meeks with 11,181 votes and Hart with 8,099 votes. That is a slight shift from Friday’s tally, which showed Miller-Meeks with 11,180 votes and Hart with 8,096 votes.

According to the preliminary results from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s Office, the change is not enough to shift the overall unofficial outcome, which shows Hart with a 163 vote lead district-wide.

Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott said he has the utmost confidence in the results of Saturday’s recount and called the process “superb."

“It was watched by many eyes. It was very transparent. You saw everything that took place,” Parrott said. “The process is a perfect process. It catches things.”

As far as the tallies that resulted from Saturday’s recount, Parrott said they were exactly in line with what he expected.

“They look like the results,” he said. “They look like exactly what I expected them to be, which was the corrected results we sent to the secretary of state on Thursday.”

Parrott said this is only the second recount he has ever conducted. The first involved just five votes cast at a single precinct in the community of Valeria during a previous election.

The recount was prompted after election workers detected what Parrott and Pate have described as a “clerical error” in one precinct, Clear Creek Poweshiek, that resulted in more than 300 votes being incorrectly added to Miller-Meeks’ preliminary tally.

Parrott says this was an instance of “human error” that occurred during the data entry process of transposing vote totals at the courthouse and not a technical or mechanical issue at the polling place. Still, he has declined to specify the exact nature of the issue, saying Saturday that he would release a written statement of explanation.

Before the error was detected, Miller-Meeks was up 282 votes, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s district-wide preliminary results at the time. That margin had been enough to put her ahead in the race.

There were a couple of hiccups in the process Saturday: two ballot counting machines temporarily stopped being able to read the ballots, including the machine assigned to the Clear Creek Poweshiek precinct.

But technician Tom Eichacker from the company ES&S, which supplies the county’s election equipment, was on-site for the recount and promptly inspected the machines, fixed the issue and the counting resumed. He reasoned that a small bit of paper or other material got inside the machines and caused the issue, which was resolved after a quick wipe-down with an alcohol-based cleaner.

This is an issue that happens “not very often” but is not unheard of, he said.

State Director of Elections Heidi Burhans was on-site watching the recount Saturday and said that Pate’s office is confident in Jasper County’s operations and that election workers properly followed the process outlined in state law for an administrative recount.

“The secretary of state’s office had complete confidence in Auditor Parrott and his staff that today’s recount would go smoothly. I think he ran a very organized operation both here and at the courthouse,” Burhans said. “I think the entire process went very smoothly. It went like the law has laid out.”

Pate and Parrott have both said the checks and balances built into the state’s election law are working as intended: election workers detected the clerical error before the results were certified and the paper ballots Iowans voted on were used to reconstruct the count.

Alan Ostergren, an attorney for the Miller-Meeks’ campaign who previously served as the Muscatine County Attorney, has meanwhile questioned Parrott’s operations and the results.

Ostergren pointed out that four other Republican candidates’ preliminary vote totals have also decreased by between 347 and 378 votes, compared to the preliminary election night totals published by the Newton Daily News.

Ostergren said that while he did not take issue with the recount process that occurred Saturday, he is not satisfied with Parrott’s statements on what caused the miscount and insinuated that there may have been misconduct. IPR knows of no evidence to support this and the auditor has disputed this assertion.

“We demand explanation from the auditor. We have requested but not yet received documents from the auditor, which will allow us to look at every single aspect of how this election was administered. And we are going to go over every one of those documents. We are not going to rest until every lawful vote cast for Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is counted,” Ostergren said.

After the recount, the Hart campaign told IPR they remain confident in the process and that they trust Parrott and Pate’s statements that the miscount was caused by human error during the data entry process.

“As we have said consistently, Iowans’ voices must be heard and their votes accurately counted. It is thus critical that county auditors ensure all results are accurate,” reads a statement the Hart campaign issued Friday afternoon. “We are confident by the end of this process that Rita Hart will be the next congresswoman from Iowa’s Second District.”

The review process isn’t over yet: election workers will audit the Clear Creek Poweshiek County results by hand beginning at 10 a.m. on Monday at the county courthouse in Newton. The county board of supervisors is slated to canvass and certify the results on Tuesday.

Candidates have three days after the canvass to request their own recount, which is conducted on a county by county basis.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter