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House Lawmakers To Hear Arguments On Uncounted Votes In Northeast Iowa Race

John Pemble
IPR file
House lawmakers are determining how to handle a disputed legislative race that saw 29 legal ballots tossed out. The special committee will hear legal arguments in the case Wednesday.

Aspecial committeeof Iowa House lawmakers will hear from lawyers Wednesday in the case ofa disputed legislative seatfor northeast Iowa's District 55.

At question is whether 29 ballots should be counted in the race between Republican incumbent Michael Bergan of Dorchester and Democratic challenger Kayla Koether of Decorah. Bergan won the contest with a 9 vote margin, and was seated Monday with the rest of the House.

A bipartisan committee made up of three Republicans and two Democrats will decide how to proceed with the 29 ballots, which arrived after Election Day without a typical postmark. State law gives the committee considerable leeway in how to handle the challenge, which Koether filed after a Polk County district judge determined he didn't have jurisdiction in the matter.

Before dismissing the case, Judge Scott J. Beattie compelled Winneshiek County elections officials and postal workers to examine and scan the disqualified ballots, 29 of which did have an intelligent mail barcode, which contained information confirming they were mailed on time. State law allows counties to use intelligent mail barcodes for verification, but most counties, including Winneshiek County, do not currently have the capability to do so. 

Following the committee's inital meeting Monday, Chairman Steven Holt, R-Denison, promised the process will be fair, but said he can't say if those ballots will be counted and the votes re-tallied.

"She has the right to have her contest heard before the House and that's what she's getting," Holt. "As far as I'm concerned, the judge dismissed it and said that the Constitution is very clear on who decides contested elections and that's the Iowa House."

Holt says ultimately the committee will make a recommendation to the full House, which will debate the issue and put it to a vote.

"The issue that is before us is are they [the ballots] to be opened and counted. And then, is it to be recanvassed, recertified, all of that," Holt said.

But Democratic members are worried that process will be rushed. Following the Monday meeting Representative Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, said the issue should be fully explored and he wants committee members to see the evidence and hear from the witnesses firsthand. 

“How can you make an informed decision when you don’t have any evidence presented? I’m coming into this cold, we’re all coming into this cold. We don’t know what the evidence is. Having attorneys make arguments? That’s not evidence," Meyer said. "I want to see the ballots.”

The Republican-led committee adopted rules Monday that do not guarantee a hearing for evidence.

The outcome of the challenge will not impact the balance of power in the House. 

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter