What happens in Iowa if elections are too close to call?

By: - October 31, 2020 8:00 am

President Donald Trump speaks on stage during a campaign rally at the Target Center on Oct. 10, 2019 in Minneapolis. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

With the presidential race heavily contested in Iowa, and with the state seen as critical to the president’s hopes for victory, a post-election recount of the vote in Iowa could become a reality.

While the latest Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows President Trump pulling ahead, previous polls have shown a tight race. Former Vice President Joe Biden had a narrow lead, 50% to 47%, over the president among likely voters in Iowa in a Monmouth University poll released last week.

The Trump campaign has signaled that it’s relatively confident the president will win Iowa, which he easily did in 2016. In fact, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has reportedly said all of the president’s various paths to victory are predicated on him winning Iowa, as well as Ohio, Florida, Maine and Georgia.

Political columnist Drew Savicki of 270 To Win has said that if Trump “can’t hold the Hawkeye State, he has few realistic paths to 270 electoral votes.”

What happens if there’s a post-Election Day recount of Iowa’s vote?

Unlike some states, Iowa law doesn’t include an automatic-recount provision in the event of a close race. However, recounts can be requested by the any of the candidates, or by any voter, assuming the requests are made within three days after the counties’ official election canvass.

Such requests can be made regardless of how close the race is, although the margin dictates who is responsible for the costs associated with the recount.

The state pays for the recount if the margin of victory separating the candidates is less than the greater of these two measures: 50 votes, or 1% of the total number of votes cast. In all other instances, the requesting candidate is held responsible for the costs associated with the recount — although the costs paid by the candidate are refunded if the recount changes the election outcome.

Voters may also request a recount on a ballot measure by submitting a petition signed by “the greater of not less than 10 eligible electors, or a number of eligible electors equaling 1 percent of the total number of votes cast.” All of the people who sign such a petition must have either been entitled to vote in that specific race on Election Day or entitled to vote in that race had they been registered to vote.

Although Iowa law includes a provision for refunding candidates’ expenses if a recount changes the outcome of an election, there is no provision for reimbursing voters who force a recount though the petition process.

Recounts are to be conducted by a board that consists of a designee of the candidate requesting the recount; a designee of the apparent winning candidate; and a person chosen jointly by the two designees.

If the two designees can’t agree on a third board member, the chief judge of the judicial district in which the canvass is occurring will appoint the third member.

The county commissioner shall supervise the handling of ballots to ensure that they are protected from alteration or damage. The board will open only the sealed ballot containers from the precincts to be recounted, and recount only the ballots which were voted and counted for the office in question, along with any disputed ballots.

If the ballots were hand-counted on Election Day, the recount board must count the ballots by hand. If the votes were counted mechanically by voting equipment on Election Day, the recount board can ask that the ballots be recounted by voting equipment, by hand, or by both methods.

Recounts are open to the public, but Iowa law doesn’t provide guidance on the “appointment” of observers by political parties and candidates.

The deadline for completing a recount under either scenario is 18 days after the county canvass.

In addition to candidates and voters requesting a recount, election officials can also request a recount and have it paid for by the state, if they suspect voting equipment malfunctions or there is evidence of ballot-counting errors. Iowa law does not specify a deadline for completing a recount made in that fashion.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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