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Getting It Right: Audit Affirms Corrected Results In One Jasper County Precinct

Kate Payne
Election workers conduct an audit by hand of votes cast in one precinct in Jasper County, after county officials identified a discrepancy in the vote totals that incorrectly put a candidate in the lead in the incredibly tight race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.

An audit by hand of the 561 ballots cast in Jasper County’s Clear Creek Poweshiek precinct on Election Day has affirmed the correction that election workers made after detecting human error in their initial count. The error had incorrectly given Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks more than 300 extra votes, which had been significant in the incredibly close race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District. Latest preliminary numbers from the Iowa Secretary of State's Office show Miller-Meeks has a lead of just 49 votes over former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart.

Seated at tables in the auditor’s office on the second floor of the Jasper County Courthouse in Newton, ten election workers thumbed through 561 ballots and 561 voter declaration of eligibility forms that were cast and signed in the Clear Creek Poweshiek precinct on Election Day, overseen by county and state election officials and representatives from both campaigns.

These Iowans, registered Republicans, Democrats and independents, were among the estimated one million election workers who stepped up this cycle to keep the gears of the American democracy turning during a global pandemic. Almost a week after Election Day, their work was not yet done.

They worked in teams of two, each of a different party registration, reading off the names of all the candidates and tallying them one by one onto audit reports.

The ballots certainly wouldn’t count themselves. By the end of a taxing eight-hour day of this repetitive (even tedious) but incredibly important work, the exhaustion was beginning to show.

After incorrectly tallying the votes in the race multiple times, they considered adjourning for the night, to give their eyes a rest and come back the next morning to get the count right. Instead, they stuck it out and finished the job.

Ultimately, it took the workers seven counts of all of the ballots cast in the 2nd Congressional District race from the Clear Creek Poweshiek precinct to reach their final determination: out of 561 total ballots, there were 139 votes for Hart, 405 for Miller-Meeks, and 17 undervotes (instances when voters did not cast a vote in this race).

This final tally has one difference from the corrected election night tally: the workers determined that the machine had not been able to read one vote for Miller-Meeks, because of how the voter colored in the bubble. The machine saw the mark as unreadable, and counted it as an undervote, but the human eye was able to recognize the clear intent of the voter.

Though it was not a perfect process, Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrot said he’s confident in the final determination, which is an affirmation of the results of a county-wide machine recount that was conducted on Saturday.

“Ten people. R’s and D’s. Two independents,” Parrott said. “I’m convinced they did their best. They did everything they could. They went the extra mile.”

“This stuff isn’t easy,” he added. “It’s difficult sometimes. It’s not always clean.”

In an extremely close race, one discrepancy makes a difference

Regardless of the outcome of the audit, under state law, the tally from Saturday’s recount is the lawful result.

The audit and the county-wide machine recount were prompted after county election workers detected a clerical error that occurred in the precinct in question, Clear Creek Poweshiek, during the data entry process. The mistake incorrectly awarded more than 300 extra votes to Miller-Meeks.

Parrott and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate have described the issue as an instance of human error at the courthouse and not a technical or mechanical issue with a voting machine at the polling place.

The clerical error was significant in the incredibly close race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which may well be the closest unresolved race in the country, according to an analysis by the outlet FiveThirtyEight.

According to the initial preliminary results, Miller-Meeks was up by 282 votes in the district-wide count. After the error was corrected, the unofficial tally showed Hart in the lead by 162 votes. Following the recount, her lead shifted to 163. After Monday’s final deadline for late arriving absentee ballots, the margin narrowed to 152. As of Tuesday morning, the lead had flipped again, with Miller-Meeks ahead by just 49 votes.

‘The system works’

Pate was on-site Monday observing the process, as were representatives from both the Hart and Miller-Meeks campaigns. Pate expressed confidence in both Saturday’s and Monday’s reviews of the votes, saying these processes are meant to ensure Iowans have the utmost confidence in the ultimate outcome.

“It’s about reassuring voters and transparency and also to give them confidence in the results. An election’s only as good as that confidence level,” Pate said.

“In this particular situation you have human error that was caught because the system works,” he added. “We knew something had happened and now we are going back through doing a hand count today of the precinct in question, so, to remove any doubt so people understand these are the accurate results.”

The Miller-Meeks campaign had questioned the process and demanded more information about the exact nature of the clerical error. Parrott said he sat down in-person with representatives from the Miller-Meeks and Hart campaigns on Monday to talk through what occurred.

“This campaign is entitled to receive every vote cast in favor of Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks. And we will insist on our rights throughout this process,” Miller-Meeks campaign attorney Alan Ostergren told reporters after Saturday’s recount.

Pate has repeatedly reiterated that the checks and balances built into Iowa’s election system are working as they should, because the clerical error was detected before the results were certified, and because the exact ballots cast on Election Day formed the paper trail used to reconstruct the vote.

“Everybody, when they come in to physically vote, signs an affidavit. That’s like a receipt. Physically we have a paper ballot. You count one, you count the other, if they’re the same number, that’s a pretty good indicator that’s the accurate number,” Pate said.

Stepping up for the first time

Even at the end of an eight hour day, election worker Melissa Doll was exuberant about having played a part in this democratic process for the very first time. This is the first cycle in which she’s stepped up to work in an election.

“It was just a joy to get to just be a part of…this is being American, you know?” she said. “I’m grateful to be able to participate.”

Hart released a video statement Monday, thanking election officials for their work over the past months and noting that the process of certifying the vote is still not completely done.

“The most important thing is that we get this right. Iowans need to have their voices heard and to make sure that they are listened to,” Hart said.

County boards of supervisors are officially canvassing their results Monday and Tuesday, at which point the county-level tallies will be considered official.

Candidates have three days after the county canvass of votes to request a recount, which is done on a county by county basis. The recounts must be completed before the state canvass of votes, which is scheduled for Nov. 30.

According to the secretary of state’s office, the district-wide results can be considered official following the state canvass.

Editor's Note: This story was updated Tuesday at 10:40 a.m. to reflect that the Iowa Secretary of State's preliminary results now show Miller-Meeks is leading over Hart.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter