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Northeast Iowa House candidate formally contests election

December 21, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Democratic candidate for a northeast Iowa House seat filed an election contest on Friday triggering a seldom-used formal process that requires the House to consider election disputes which in this case revolves around whether to count 29 disputed absentee ballots.

Kayla Koether, who trails Republican incumbent Michael Bergan by nine votes in Iowa House district 55 said the 29 ballots were found to be valid votes and they should be counted.

“There are at least 29 Northeast Iowans who cast their ballots on time — in good faith — and followed the law, yet elections officials have refused to count their votes,” she said. “Ensuring that all legal votes are counted is foundational to our democracy and to our faith in our elections. We will always fight to maintain the rights not only of these voters, but of all Iowans.”

Koether asked Judge Scott Beattie in a lawsuit she filed Nov. 29 against state and county election officials to order them to count the mailed absentee ballots that did not have postmarks but did have postal bar code markings that revealed they were mailed on time.

Beattie concluded that the Iowa Constitution and state law establishes a procedure for legislative seat challenges to go to the lawmakers themselves and not the courts.

“That power is constitutionally given to the legislative branch, and this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction as a result,” he wrote.

She said Friday she notified Bergan and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate that she’s contesting the election.

The Republican-led Iowa House or a committee appointed by leaders now must act as a court to consider evidence and decide whether to count the ballots.

A spokesman for House Republican leaders said the most recent election challenge to be considered in the House appears to have been in 1913.

The Senate affirmed Sen. Larry Murphy’s 16-vote victory in the 1992 election when Republican challenger Rep. Joe Kremer disputed the way some ballots were delivered and collected at nursing homes and other election day procedures.

The current dispute is the result of a conflict between state law and current practices of the U.S. Postal Service.

Iowa law says mailed absentee ballots received after election day must have a postmark to allow election officials to determine they were mailed by the mandatory deadline of the day before the election. However, the postal service doesn’t typically postmark absentee ballot envelopes.

The mail envelopes for the ballots in question were stamped with a postal service barcode that confirmed they were mailed on time but Pate and Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines, both Republicans, argued state law doesn’t allow those types of barcodes to be used to affirm a ballot mail date. They declined to count the ballots.

Koether said ballots confirmed by postal service barcode to be mailed on time should be counted.

It’s not clear how many Iowa ballots were not counted because they lacked postmarks. A spokesman for Pate said the office does not know.

More than 547,000 Iowa residents voted absentee this year, a record number for the state in an election with the highest ever turnout in a midterm election of 1.3 million voters.

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Follow David Pitt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davepitt

The race will not change the balance of power in the House, however. Democrats picked up five House seats in the November election to narrow Republican control 53 to 46 excluding the District 55 seat.

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