Iowa House Votes To Reject Barcoded Ballots in Disputed Election

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The Iowa House of Representatives voted yesterday along party lines to reject a challenge in a disputed election with a nine-vote margin, deciding that absentee ballots that arrived without traditional postmarks but with “intelligent mail barcodes” did not comply with Iowa law. The Des Moines Register has more:

The tension over a contested Statehouse election spilled onto the floor of the Iowa House on Monday as Democrats pointed the finger at their Republican counterparts for dismissing a bundle of rejected ballots that could change the declared winner.

House Republicans believe they’re following the law in not opening the ballots, while Democrats say it’s a move that will disenfranchise voters.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers from both parties committed to working together to figure out what to do about the House District 55 race between Democrat Kayla Koether and Republican Rep. Michael Bergan.

At the center of the debate are 29 rejected mail-in ballots that the U.S. Postal Service says were put in the mailing system before the deadline to submit absentee ballots. Koether wants lawmakers to count the ballots.

Lawmakers voted 53-42 Monday along party lines to formally dismiss Koether’s election challenge, agreeing that the rejected ballots should be kept out of consideration.

The issue is what to do about ballots with intelligent barcodes – Republicans say they don’t qualify as postmarked ballots, but Democrats wanted to take testimony from voters to establish that they were timely cast:

The 29 ballots were rejected because they do not have traditional postmarks but do have barcode data. It’s that fact that’s forced House lawmakers to address whether Iowa law is vague about barcode data on ballots.

According to the three Republicans on the elections committee, the law is clear about the use of barcodes. Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, told reporters last week that she was open to reviewing the existing statute. But she believed most county auditors have been following the system around absentee ballots as intended.

“It has been working, and if we need to clarify that for anyone, we can do that,” Upmeyer said…

“We have rules in place to protect the integrity of that sacred, fundamental right,” said Rep. Steven Holt, a Denison Republican who led a special elections committee and has become a key spokesman on the debate. “That is what we are talking about here … following the rule of law to ensure that that fundamental right is protected.”

House Democrats — some of whom wore stickers Monday in support of counting the ballots — allege Republicans on Holt’s five-member, GOP-led committee have led a grossly inadequate investigation of the election in part by not expanding their review to include testimony from the voters who cast the ballots.

“What’s at stake is the fundamental belief in the integrity of our electoral system,” said Rep. Heather Matson, an Ankeny Democrat who spoke Monday. “When we decide that some legally cast votes aren’t valid because we may not like the outcome, we are inadvertently telling Iowans that their voices may not matter at all.”

One voter who mailed in an absentee ballot because he was recovering from cancer surgery expressed disappointment in the outcome:

Not opening the ballots is disappointing for Liam Murphy, a Decorah resident who said he’s one of the 29 voters whose ballots were rejected. He hoped his appearance at the Capitol on Monday, alongside Koether and other district residents, could sway some Republicans’ minds.

“I just think that if … they see me as a real person and they know that I voted and I voted correctly and I’m told that that vote doesn’t count,” he said, “whatever reason they have, whatever semantics they have about what constitutes a barcode, to me it just doesn’t weigh as heavily as my right to actually vote.”

The House vote may not be the last we see of this dispute, as Koether weighs a legal challenge:

Bergan leads Koether by nine votes. Koether, a first-time candidate from Decorah, filed paperwork to force lawmakers to determine the fate of the rejected ballots. Bergan, of Dorchester, was declared the winner and sworn in earlier this month, but that could have theoretically changed if enough of the rejected votes were declared valid and went to Koether.

Bergan has declined to comment on the contested election. He was not expected to vote on the race.

Koether has long insisted that her effort — which at one point included a lawsuit — is about ensuring that Iowans who voted in good faith have their ballots added to the tally. The 29-year-old has kept the door open to another legal challenge that could involve some of the impacted voters.

“For us, this is not about partisanship,” Koether said. “This is not about political bickering. This is about our neighbors.”

Disputed legislative elections are always tricky – especially when the winner has already been seated alongside his colleagues – but this case highlights the need for states to reconsider and clarify what constitutes a timely ballot now that traditional postmarks are not always used or available. On one hand, one might imagine the legislature seeking to change state law – but that would in some ways be a tacit admission that the disputed ballots were valid and so it may not occur. Either way, it feels like this story isn’t over yet … stay tuned!

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