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Auditors Improperly Count Some Ballots In House District 55, Nullify Others

Thomas Hawk via flickr creative commons
Local elections workers improperly counted some ballots in a tight legislative race, and were forced to nullify others to comply with state law. The moves could've made a difference in the contest, which has a margin of just seven votes.

Elections officials improperly counted ballots in Iowa’s closest statehouse race. Despite the error, state officials say there’s no way to undo it. 

Fayette County Auditor Lori Moellers says elections workers there improperly included 12 last minute mail-in ballots in their count, even though the ballots were not postmarked, which is required by Iowa Code. The move could have affected the outcome in northeast Iowa's House District 55 race.

According to the Secretary of State's tally as of Wednesday afternoon, Republican incumbent Michael Bergan is up by just seven votes over Democratic challenger Kayla Koether in the race to represent parts of Winneshiek, Fayette and Clayton Counties. With such a close margin, it's possible a different outcome could have resulted if those ballots were tossed out.

Moellers called the move unfortunate, but directed further questions to state elections officials. Now that the ballots have been included, the secretary of state’s office says there’s no way to remove them from the count.

"They should not have been included," spokesman Kevin Hall wrote in an email. "However, once votes are counted, they cannot be uncounted. There would be no way to identify those ballots after they’ve been added to the vote total."

Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines says lawmakers should reconsider the postmark requirement, which he says nullifies ballots in his county "almost every election."

“Yes, I would hope that it does end up in the Legislature again. Maybe even with the spotlight on it now with this election it’ll be a more pressing issue for legislators," Steines said. "This is an issue and should be addressed again."

Steines's office tossed out 32 mail-in ballots because they were not postmarked, and he's now mailing out letters to affected voters to notify them their votes have been rejected. 

"That is not a fun task and I feel bad when we do it," Steines said. "That's why as auditors, auditors across the state have been asking for a solution to this problem for several years."

In 2014, the Iowa State Association of County Auditors unsuccessfully pushed state lawmakers to review the postmark requirement.

All election results are unofficial until the official state canvass on December 3rd.