Democrats ask for state recount changes following Hart concession

Democrat Rita Hart, who has withdrawn her appeal of results of the 2nd Congressional District election, is shown here during the 2020 campaign outside a school in Bennett, where she once taught. (Photo courtesy of Rita Hart campaign)

Two weeks after Democrat Rita Hart withdrew her challenge of election results in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, legislative leaders are asking for changes in state recount procedures.

“I think the time is right for a leadership bill for Democrats and Republicans to come together and make some bipartisan changes to how recount elections are handled in Iowa to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls told reporters Thursday.

Wahls, D-Coralville, said he reached out to Republican lawmakers this week about introducing a bill to amend the state’s recount system. Wahls identified several areas he hoped to change, including:

  • Allowing more than three people to serve on a recount board in larger, more populous counties; 
  • Involving county auditors and staff members in a recount;
  • Counting ballots that were excluded due to election worker error in a recount;
  • Conducting visual inspections and counting ballots that have not been marked clearly;
  • Allowing the state judicial system to take more time to determine the outcome of a contested election. Current law requires the contest court to convene, conduct a trial and make a decision by early December.

But with only two weeks left before the legislative session ends, lawmakers have limited options to introduce new legislation. Only “leadership bills” proposals by the House and Senate majority leaders, or collaborations among the majority and minority leaders in one chamber and budget proposals can begin after the first funnel.

Republican lawmakers told the Quad-City Times in February that they would not consider the issue until the disputed 2nd Congressional District election between Hart and U.S. Rep Mariannette Miller-Meeks had been resolved.

“We can look at it this year and pass it next year, before the general election in 2022,” Smith, R-Davenport, said.

With the challenge now withdrawn, House Speaker Pat Grassley did not commit on whether changes were coming down the line this session.

Grassley, R-New Hartford, didn’t rule out the possibility that recount issues could be addressed this year. He said the House is still working on a “less political” election bill than the sweeping changes passed in March. The Senate, he said, has a bill with “technical changes.” He was uncertain if the Senate bill would address concerns with Iowa’s recount process.

“I haven’t really come full circle on that bill to see if there’s any further discussion leading to the recount issue,” Grassley said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, did not respond to questions about Senate Republican plans on the recount process.

How did Iowa’s current recount process work for Hart and Miller-Meeks?

Iowa’s months-long recount saga came to an end on March 31, when Hart withdrew her challenge for the state’s 2nd District seat.

Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been seated even as Democrat Rita Hart challenges the election results. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Hart and Miller-Meeks played jump-rope with a vanishingly thin margin in the November 2020 race to replace seven-term U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat. 

Days after the Nov. 3 election, Miller-Meeks held a 47-vote lead over Hart. Miller-Meeks declared victory and Hart requested a recount of all 24 counties in the 2nd District.

Iowa Code specifies that counties must employ a bipartisan, three-member recount board to tally the votes. One member is appointed by each campaign, and then the third member is agreed to by both parties. The panels had 18 days to conduct the recount, but Iowa Code does not specify the method they use: some panels chose to recount by machines, while others did it by hand. 

After re-tallying the votes of nearly 400,000 Iowans, the bipartisan panels found that Miller-Meeks won by six votes

Hart turned to Congress in December, asking a federal committee to review 22 discarded ballots  that were not counted due to an election worker error.

That federal review took on wider political implications: The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, would ultimately decide whether Hart won the election. But former President Donald Trump had just left the White House, accusing Democrats of rigging the election against him and fellow conservatives, putting House Democrats in a politically perilous position.

Hart withdrew her request for a review in March. She said the “toxic campaign of political disinformation” had made it impossible to conduct a federal review of the election.

“I am saddened that some Iowans’ votes will not count through no fault of their own,” Hart said. “The work of ensuring it does not happen again will continue beyond this campaign.”