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Miller-Meeks Ahead By Six Votes Following Districtwide Recount In Iowa's 2nd Congressional District

Candidates Rita Hart, D - Wheatland, and Iowa Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R - Ottumwa, answered questions from reporters and discussed their platforms, concerns and future plans. David Yepsen, host of Iowa Press on Iowa PBS, moderated the debate.
Iowa PBS
Following a districtwide recount of all 24 counties, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads Democrat Rita Hart by six votes in the race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.

Unofficial results following a districtwide recount across 24 southeast Iowa counties show Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leading Democrat Rita Hart by six votes in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Still, the results in the closest federal race in the country are not yet finalized, pending formal certification from county and state level officials on Monday. Following a dramatic tallying process complicated by technical issues and errors in multiple counties, the potential for a legal challenge remains.

Saturday afternoon, Clinton County became the last county to wrap up its recount for the 2nd District. Hart netted two additional votes in her home county, out of some 23,000 total votes cast in the county, which was not enough to close the margin.

While the districtwide recount of the more than 394,000 ballots cast in the race narrowed the margin from 47 votes to six, Miller-Meeks still held the lead.

Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa ophthalmologist and veteran who is in her fourth run for the seat, issued a statement Saturday thanking the local election officials, staff and volunteers who carried out the unprecedented recount.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank county auditors, their staffs and the volunteers who worked so hard these past few weeks to conduct the recount,” Miller-Meeks’ statement reads in part. “While the race is extraordinarily close, I am proud to have won this contest and look forward to being certified as the winner by the state’s Executive Council on Monday.”

Hart, a former state senator and retired educator who farms with her husband in Wheatland, did not say Saturday if her campaign would file a legal challenge. In a statement, her campaign manager Zach Meunier said the staff would be closely monitoring the certification process Monday.

“We have said from the beginning of this recount process that the most important thing is that Iowans’ voices are heard and their votes are counted fairly. Moreover, under Iowa law, the recount was limited to the universe of ballots initially counted after Election Day,” Meunier’s statement reads in part. “We will closely review what the county and state boards do on Monday with an eye toward making sure all Iowa voices are fully and fairly heard."

Certification by county and state officials to happen Monday

One key county that has not yet recanvassed the results following its recount is Scott County, the largest in the district and home to the reliably Democratic-leaning city of Davenport.

The recount board there found that Hart had gained 105 votes and Miller-Meeks gained 79, giving Hart a net of 26 votes following the recount. But there is a 131 vote discrepancy between the recount board’s totals and the official canvass results from earlier this month. The recount board’s tabulation (which was conducted by machine, followed by a hand count of ballots the machine couldn’t read) showed 131 more ballots than the county’s initial tabulation.

According to the Quad City Times, after receiving guidance from the Scott County Attorney’s Office, the recount board determined it was not within their legal purview to reconcile the discrepancy, saying that would be up to the courts, pending a potential legal challenge from one of the campaigns.

The discrepancy prompted the county board of supervisors to postpone their recanvass of the recount results until Monday morning. It will be up to the supervisors whether to certify the recount board’s results, which is typically a legal formality.

The Miller-Meeks campaign had questioned Scott County’s process, with campaign attorney Alan Ostergren calling the recount of absentee ballots “unreliable."

The Scott County Attorney’s Office and the Hart campaign have defended the process, which they noted was done with guidance and cooperation from the Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office, which advised that within certain legal parameters, local officials have the final say over how the recount is conducted.

“Ultimately, the manner in which a recount board handles the mechanics of a recount is left up to the discretion of the majority of the board,” reads guidance from Molly Widen, legal counsel for Pate’s office.

Separately, the recount in Jasper Count was complicated by a mechanical error that proved significant in the tight race. Hart's campaign had initially asserted it had gained 9 votes in the recount process there. But after a faulty machine was replaced, Hart's campaign didn't net any additional votes, while Miller-Meeks lost one vote, according to the Associated Press.

A historically close race narrowed even further

The incredibly close race has tightened considerably since the initial election night results showed Miller-Meeks leading by 282 votes. The candidates traded the lead back and forth and the margin narrowed even further after Jasper and Lucas counties each identified and then corrected human error in their initial tallies.

The contest for the open seat, vacated by the retiring seven-term Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack, has attracted more national attention as the lengthy districtwide recount has gone on. Which candidate ultimately wins the seat will impact the size of Democrats’ majority in the U.S. House, as well as the partisan breakdown of Iowa’s House delegation.

The state’s official canvass of results will take place Monday afternoon at 3. The process is typically a merely technical one, representing the formal and final determination of the state’s races.

But due to the historically narrow margin, the national interest in the contest and the technical and legal issues in multiple counties, the race may remain unsettled after Monday, pending a potential legal challenge, which at least one local official has said is quite likely.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter