One absentee ballot forces a 12-hour second recount on Saturday
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A recount of every single ballot cast in Lee County for the 2nd Congressional district has validated the Lee County Auditor’s postings on election night.
Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Ottumwa) won the county with 9,145 votes to Rita Hart’s (D-Wheatland) 6,969.
The race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack is the closest race in the country with the separation being under 50 votes as of Nov. 20. Hart’s campaign called for a complete recount in each of the district’s 24 counties in the southeast quadrant of the state.
Lee County Election Commissioner Nikki Sugars said the recount is the largest recount she’s ever been a part of and verified Lee County’s initial counts to the last vote.
“It left without question the results of our counts,” Sugars said Tuesday after a very long weekend.
The recount started at 9 a.m. on Thursday and the three members of the recount board stayed until 9:30 p.m. daily through Saturday doing precinct recounts.
The board consisted of Anne Pedersen representing the Rita Hart campaign, Tim Coonan, a Des Moines laywer representing the Miller-Meeks campaign and Shelley Oltmans, of Keokuk as the third board member picked by the other two.
The recount was a machine recount where all ballots cast for the 2nd district race were rerun through the precinct machines and then absentees were done.
The absentee count created a snafu for the recount board when one ballot got placed in the wrong area after a scan and the total counts came out one over.
Sugars said that happened at about 12:30 a.m. Friday night and by 1:30 a.m. the group had decided the whole absentee batch had to be recounted. So the group came back in on Saturday and started all over on the absentees and finished the recount of those ballots at about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
The recount could have been submitted with the one ballot error in the absentee precinct.
“We got to end of absentees Saturday night and we had one extra ballot count,” Sugars said. “I’m like, that can’t be. We had this many. And apparently one ballot got moved and run through the machine again so we had to redo it all.
“That was their decision to re-recount it all. They wanted to make sure it was right.”
Overall, Sugars said there were only four overvotes in all the ballots cast for the 2nd Congressional District.
An overvote is a ballot that would appear to the machines to have two votes cast in the same race. An undervote is a ballot that appears to have no votes cast.
Recount boards can elect to do either a hand recount of all ballots or a machine count. Sugars said the Lee County recount board chose to use the machines.
She said the machines give warnings and pull undervotes unless it’s completely blank. The machines also give a warning on an overvoted race and tells poll workers they were allowed a set number of votes and had extras.
She said only four overvotes were detected in the 2nd district race and those were identified and showed to the recount board.
“They wanted to see those overvotes. They are looking for voter intent and these ballots were all clearly filled ovals,” Sugars said.
Sugars said the only recount she’s ever been a part of of was the Fort Madison School District referendum bond and that was much smaller ballot count,.
“I’m really impressed with how we all got along together. Both parties were very civil, and we actually had some fun,” Sugars said. “We had some disagreements at 12:30 a.m Saturday. trying to figure if we needed to rerun (the absentees) but they came together and made a decision at 1:30 a.m and we came back on Saturday..”
Sugars said it was very stressful three days. Even at the end all the ballots had to be replaced in envelopes carefully so they didn’t get wrinkled or folded because they have to be maintained in the event the ballots would need recounted… again.
“It was stressful for all of us. Only staff can run the machines so we were doing that for 36 hours, then you have the observers and a federal seat on the line. The pressure was really on,” she said.
“But I’m glad it’s over.”
Current counts as of Tuesday have Miller-Meeks with a razor-thin 36 vote lead with Scott, Johnson and Clinton county recounts still ongoing. Ten of the other 21 have had new vote tallies, according to Iowa Starting Line, a political news outlet based in Des Moines.
The Iowa Secretary of State’s office is set to certify results on Nov. 30.